Flash Fiction by Donal Mahoney: “Big Thanksgiving Snow”

The first snow of the winter is blanketing our Western Massachusetts region today, the day before Thanksgiving, which makes this a perfect time to post this short-short story by Reiter’s Block contributor Donal Mahoney. Enjoy, and drive safely.

Big Thanksgiving Snow

by Donal Mahoney


“Sometimes Jesus walked around with a big staff, just like me,” Mrs. Day says to herself as she looks at the frayed picture on her kitchen wall just above the little kitchen table. She cut that picture out of a magazine 50 years ago when she subscribed to Life and Look and Colliers magazines.

“Jesus doesn’t need that staff,” Mrs. Day tells herself. “It was a sunny day in Jericho, the article said. I’ll bet He used that staff to go up in the hills to pray. The Bible says He often left the apostles behind to go away and pray. I’d have kept an eye on Him if I was there.”

At 80 Mrs. Day is legally blind with one good leg. She has a staff of her own to help her walk to stores and then back to her little house. The staff is at least a foot taller than she is. It was a gift from a dead neighbor who was handy with tools and liked to carve and whittle. Mrs. Day needs that staff this Thanksgiving Day as she makes her way through drifts of snow, an unusual amount for this first big winter holiday.

With nothing in the fridge except old bread and prunes, Mrs. Day hopes to find a diner open. Even Jack in the Box is closed for Thanksgiving so there will be no coffee with a Breakfast Jack to go but Mrs. Day has time today to find a place that is open. And she knows that place will probably be Vijay’s Diner, where she’s a customer on days when every other place is closed.

Vijay came to the United States long ago when Mumbai was still Bombay. He cooks for everyone every day of the year, whatever God they worship or ignore. He makes fine Indian dishes for customers who emigrated from India as he did. And he makes fine American cuisine for people from the neighborhood, most of whom have yet to adjust to Indian dishes and their redolent spices.

“I have a nice turkey leg, Mrs. Day, if you’d like that,” he says, but all she wants is coffee, two sugars and a muffin to go.

“I’m on a diet,” she tells him.

Vijay puts her items in a small brown bag and adds a free candy bar, a Baby Ruth bar, a big one, for later tonight. Mrs. Day will be angry when she gets home and finds it but that’s okay. She can’t come out at night to look for something to eat. It’s tough enough for her to get around in sunlight.

Vijay waits for Mrs. Day to dig in her big purse and put all of her change on the counter. Then they count aloud together each coin that he picks up one at a time. Finally they agree he has the right amount even though Mrs. Day has trouble seeing the coins. Usually she can tell which are which by the feel of them. Now Vijay smiles at Mrs. Day, his customer on the holidays only.

“Happy Thanksgiving, Mrs. Day,” he says. “I hope you’ll come again. We’ll have leg of lamb on Christmas. And ham and yams on New Year’s Eve. I’ll make you a nice big sandwich. I know you’ll like it. You can skip the diet for one day.”

30 Poems in November: Your Turkey Day Reminder

Are you thankful that you can read this? Give the gift of literacy to new immigrants, and sponsor me in my 30 Poems in November fundraiser.

Here is today’s poem for your enjoyment. Have a tasty holiday!

Ode to Butternut Squash

Butternut squash, you are the War and Peace of vegetables.
So heavy, traditional, symbolic of grand ambitions unfulfilled.
Delusional, even, like Napoleon’s drive to conquer Russia,
which is what I assume Tolstoy’s classic is about,
though like most Americans tucking into their giblets this holiday,
I’ve never cracked the book on display in my living room.
Butternut squash, is this your destiny too?
Like the little Corsican exiled on Elba,
will you shrivel and sag in my refrigerator,
Thanksgiving come and gone, nothing to hope for
except that this time I’ll mean it when I glimpse you
behind the milk and say to myself,
“I really should cook that before it goes bad”?
Butternut squash, my knife shrinks from sawing into your rind,
your brute firmness, flesh pink and unmarked,
sized to give Anna Karenina the shivers.
I do not have the conquering spirit.
Because I am afraid, butternut squash,
that even if I can cut you in half without losing a finger,
and you yield your virgin territory
to be encrusted with sugared pecans like a Fabergé egg,
and I find the patience to bake you at 350 degrees
for longer than it takes to say “Andrei Nikolaevich Bolkonsky”,
my guests, who have never starved in the siege of Moscow,
will not be grateful for your sacrifice
and fill up on pie instead.

Poetry by Robert McDowell: “The Promise of Hunter’s Moon”

Poet, activist, and spiritual workshop leader Robert McDowell sent out this powerful poem in his e-newsletter to commemorate the International Day to End Violence Against Women (Nov. 25). McDowell’s work focuses on actualizing the sacred feminine to bring about gender equality and reconciliation. He has kindly allowed me to reprint it below.

The Promise of Hunter’s Moon
by Robert McDowell

At some point we’re all coming back as birds.
We’ll begin in the muck, unrecognizable, stinking,
Until creatures with hands or tools for hands
Scoop us up and start squeezing and pulling.
Suddenly there we are, unmistakably beaked,
Straining against thin leather thongs that someone
Had the good sense to tie around rocks and our twiggy legs.
It’s a good thing, this confinement, because free
We’d rip and tear apart anything we could reach.
The things with hands, or tools like hands, feed us
A mixture of water and the blood of the beheaded,
And with this inside of us we develop fast,
Looking more like giant birds you’d recognize
By the minute. Our feathers grow black and glossy,
And the thicker they become the meaner we feel.
When they just can’t grow anymore they fall out.
Our featherless bodies are disgusting to touch,
Hideous to behold. Where once we were murderous,
We grow timid under the mirror-hot sun. Then
More feathers appear, small, white feathers,
Beautiful, snowy plumes that dazzle in moonlight.
When we’re ready she comes. Out of the sea and sky,
Out of the barren ground she comes. Astonishing
Is her loveliness, perfected is her power.
She rises and walks among us as we bow,
Obedient, peaceful, and so in love.

New Poem by Conway: “Smell”

My prison pen pal Conway reports that the hearing on his petition for early release has been delayed until December, crushing his hope of being reunited with his family for Christmas. It’s been over two years since California voters passed Proposition 36, which was supposed to roll back the harsh sentences imposed on nonviolent offenders under the three-strikes law. This Nov. 14 L.A. Times article suggests the state is dragging its feet on releasing prisoners because the Department of Corrections benefits from their underpaid labor:

Federal judges on Friday ordered California to launch a new parole program that could free more prisoners early, ruling the state had failed to fully implement an order last February intended to reduce unconstitutional crowding.

The judges, for a second time, ordered that all nonviolent second-strike offenders be eligible for parole after serving half their sentence. They told corrections officials to submit new plans for that parole process by Dec. 1, and to implement them beginning January.

“The record contains no evidence that defendants cannot implement the required parole process by that date, 11 months after they agreed to do so ‘promptly,'” the judges wrote in Friday’s order.

Corrections department spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said the agency would comply with the order.

But the federal judicial panel did not take action on other steps it had ordered California to take last February. Those include increasing the sentence reductions minimum-custody inmates can earn for good behavior and participation in rehabilitation and education programs.

Most of those prisoners now work as groundskeepers, janitors and in prison kitchens, with wages that range from 8 cents to 37 cents per hour. Lawyers for Attorney General Kamala Harris had argued in court that if forced to release these inmates early, prisons would lose an important labor pool.

Meanwhile, my friend Conway keeps his soul alive through creative writing. In addition to poetry, he is working on an autobiographical novel about growing up with his brothers and sisters in a gang-ridden neighborhood. I think he could be the next S.E. Hinton! I was struck by this poem’s taut rhythm and rapid-fire rhymes and wordplay.


This is the smell of a cell…
This is the smell of rust and dust, and sometimes lust.
Plus it’s the smell of double bar-locks, block and blocks, of towers
and useless clocks. If you don’t know what time it is, oh well!

Could it be the smell of a dirty-ass sock, or worn-out useless
fruitless talk? But still, it’s a voice you feel you might trust.
Not that, oh no!
This is the smell of nothing good. No pleasure, no sound,
nobody around to be found, nowhere to go.
Nothing to show, for all the shit you now know.

This is the smell of a place where no one belongs, but still
we’re stuck here. Because the court insists we’ve done something wrong.
This is that place where they’ll put you away, to serve
day after day. And you’ll rust in the smell of the dust and decay.

This is the smell you will always smell, unless
they tell you “your smelling is finally done.”
In this smelly assed life, that’s good for no-one.
This is the smell of no place to be, this is the smell I see.
This is the smell of just one prisoner’s tale.
This is the smell of that living hell.
This is the smell that I smell.
This is the smell of jail…

The Lion Under My Skin

Three weeks ago I made another one of my longtime fashion dreams come true.  I got my first tattoo.


This lion who now lives on my left ankle represents Aslan, the Christ-figure in the Narnia books, as well as the courage of my male spiritual side. The original artwork by Nycci Traynor at InkWell Studio in Bristol, CT is based on our first Winning Writers logo. (Now that’s corporate loyalty.)


Oct. 30, 2014, 1 PM: I prepare to meet my fate.

I promised myself a tattoo when I finished the latest revision of The Endless Novel, back in August. As the appointment date approached, though, I was getting cold feet. I wasn’t anxious about the pain so much as the commitment. My beliefs, priorities, and personal style have gone through major changes several times already. What if the image I chose no longer represented me in a few years? I asked my oldest friend for advice. He said he was also contemplating a tattoo with a symbol that would remind him that God was always there for him. So that’s how I made my choice.

I’m glad he got me thinking about tattoos as a spiritual practice. Ink can be a beautiful, unique, and (after the first couple of weeks) zero-maintenance form of adornment. But beyond that, for me it’s a way of taking ownership of my body. Creative control, if you will. I can go beyond the limits of what I was given, and turn my body into a visible record of my inner journey.

In some indigenous cultures, tattoos and other forms of body modification play a role in rites of passage. They mark a permanent transition to adulthood and demonstrate the bearer’s physical endurance and bravery. This aspect of tattooing also became important to me when I was under the needle.

So how painful was it? It was pretty much what you’d expect from having needles stuck in your leg for two hours. In other words, equivalent to about five minutes on the phone with my childhood abuser. (This is the universal standard of measurement in our household.) And unlike such conversations, the emotional aftereffects of being inked were nothing but positive.

I didn’t enjoy the pain per se, but it turned out I enjoyed how tough it made me feel. As it was happening, I compared it to other types of pain I’ve experienced, and reassured myself that I could handle this. I gained a clearer perspective on the boundaries between pain, suffering, and abuse.

Buddhists distinguish between pain, the unpleasant sensation itself, and suffering, the way we compound our pain by proliferating fearful or angry thoughts about it. There was no suffering involved in my tattoo because it was purposeful, consensual, time-limited, applied by someone I trusted, and chosen from a position of self-affirmation. Compare, for example, the facial hair electrolysis I had in my 20s, which was the closest equivalent to the physical sensation, but was much more of a downer because I was doing it to fix something I felt was wrong with me, not to make my awesome self more awesome.

In the Endless Novel and my notes for the sequel, I’ve been struggling with how to interpret, and whether to judge, my characters’ risky sexual practices. I have less than zero erotic interest in pain in the bedroom, but one of my main characters has made it clear that he’s a kinkster and doesn’t want to be “cured” through trauma therapy. Meanwhile, at Winning Writers, I’ve just finished judging the Sports Fiction & Essay Contest, reading about athletes who subject their bodies to extreme hardships and sometimes permanent injuries, in pursuit of–what? Winning an arbitrary game, feeling tough, being admired, defying age and mortality? What does society consider a legitimate reason to override the animal instinct for self-preservation? What is the difference between BDSM and roller derby?

Last month, Sarah Bessey at Jesus Feminist put up a post saying that Christians should not engage in consensual sexual practices involving domination and pain. She argued that such fantasies trivialized the societal problem of abuse, and ran counter to the Christian ethic of nonviolent love.

Without any experience to contradict Bessey, I was inclined to agree with her, but two of the Christian feminists I most respect, Sarah Moon and Samantha Field, offered cogent rebuttals that opened my mind. From Field’s post:

What I love about kink is how it exposes us as a couple. It puts the amount of love we have for each other and how deeply we trust each other fully on display in a way that more vanilla sex just doesn’t. For me, when I’m subbing, there’s an unbelievable amount of anticipation that is almost joyful. I don’t know what he’s about to do, or where this is about to go, but I know that I’m going to love it.

The best part is that I have complete and total control over what happens. As a rape victim, I cannot overstate how much that means to me. When Handsome and I are in a scene, I know that if he attempts something that makes me uncomfortable I can put an instant stop to it–but that hasn’t even happened yet. While we’re playing, we’re attentive to each other in a way that we don’t quite attain when we’re having a missionary quickie. Whoever is on top is watching every single breath and twitch, and we’re communicating with each other more than any other time we have sex. And because I know he is watching me incredibly carefully, I’m free to let go; he’s pushed me in ways I didn’t think was possible, and that’s happened because I trust him and I know he loves me…

…[P]ain is not the same thing as violence, and causing pain is certainly not the same thing as abuse. That’s not even an argument that makes sense–everything in our daily lives belies that. It’s non-consensual pain (emotional or physical) that is an intrinsic violation and is always wrong, full stop.

To me, BDSM is about communication, and respect, and trust, and love, and commitment, and honoring each other. It’s about exploring, finding, and then keeping boundaries.

The anonymous guest writer at Moon’s blog shared similar thoughts about the satisfaction of pushing one’s limits in a consensual, trust-filled environment:

They tell me that my experience is less “true” than the narrative that BDSM critics try to impose. That the way I feel isn’t real, can’t be trusted. (You know this is gaslighting, right?)

Here is what it feels like for me, as a submissive who is otherwise a perfectionist, to be in the hands of a trusted partner: relaxation. Gratitude. Is it okay for me to be this lazy and still feel this good? No need to think, to stress. Just receive.

Here is what it feels like for me, a dominant who was raised in a culture where women aren’t really supposed to want power, let alone claim it: awe. Look at what I can do. Look what he wants from me, what he trusts me with. Look how wonderful he looks…

…Sex is fraught with connotations, with connections hidden in the subconscious. Power dynamics are also fraught. Examine everything. In fact, I will be prescriptive here: the more closely an action mimics oppressive power structures, the more closely you should examine it before acting on it or making it a deliberate part of your fantasy life.

And if an action seems to replicate those power structures too closely for your comfort, that is a good reason for you to refrain from an act. In fact, I think it’s a fantastic reason. Society does program us all in certain ways, and it is our duty and responsibility to be on the lookout for that.

But “too close for comfort” for you does not mean that other people can’t navigate it safely.

And assuming that one can draw a line in the sand where the actions on one side are “good” and the actions on the other side are “bad” is a practice that Christianity has engaged in for too long.

Because of how I felt while getting inked, these arguments resonate with me, in a way that might not have been possible before. Tattoos are more mainstream than they used to be, but a lot of people still judge tattooed women as rebellious, self-destructive, not respectable, etc. That’s why I placed mine on my ankle, where I could easily hide it with clothing when I need to look “professional”. (A demand that’s fortunately rare in the life of a poet.) Intent and effects matter more than some list of approved and un-approved actions tagged with pre-fab psychological explanations.

Is my painful body modification partly a response to my trauma history? Maybe so…but my response is…