One hundred knots – Featured Fiction by Kelli Allen

Swords swallow wheat in the north and every girl learns early how to keep rice grains dry in the pockets of her own skirt. One summer begs that there will be another, yet twenty hours can mound granite into karsts before we rub grains from our eyes as quickly as minutes from yes to please, stay. But so little stays, and we hoard the mouths at our throat.

There is need here, but the word need is wrong. Need is the rain, but there is no rain today, just a picnic in the everyday gloss of lily heads craning against still water. And then, as a sigh, there is no time for sweets melting into the tongue, and no time for counting ants in their round march after sacrifice and duty. Choices are made quicker than breath and both have their consequences. One girl keeps what was left, or she does not. Breathe in, and breathe out

Four parts to a mantra as she collects blanket, reed basket, and dried abalones into the shallow of her chest: 

The women agree that they have murdered desire every morning for one hundred and thirty-one years; the roofs sagging over these houses proves as much. 

No one asks for the milk to arrive at the breakfast table, and grandmothers hide honey under our beds for the winter, where in snow, everything complains. 

Spiders will watch arguments from the furry refuge of their nests, debts collected in full. 

Nothing spells shame brighter than teeth-meeting-teeth in a dry kiss gone on too long. 

These truths begin each week and, by noon, the sun says what she might to every winged thing brave enough to answer.

This girl, who is no bride, is forging one of two princes in the cabbage folds of her womb.  

When she understands that the rabbit has died, she bends to untie her slippers and begins the meticulous work of cradling the ribbons into signs for girl and for boy. The rough silk crescent and dagger will greet her in the months to come as she passes from basin to hearth. She will make this trek in half circles until her head nestles into dried shoots, her legs arching for expulsion and arrival. 

At the washing well, she considers how often she is told to marry a brown bull. She has welcomed too many rods to strike her into flame and is wasted through her want.  This is known, and this is the silence that follows her as a painted dog snapping at the elk’s rump in spring. The village men insist she let the fleshy button of her ear tear into a new tongue her husband can wield when he begins to sing. But there will be no husband.

Her sister will allow only two trips to the butcher’s block and the feast is coming soon, though not for her, not for celebration, but to welcome mourning as the cousin to elation. The hand resting flat on her used thigh reminds the stomach of emptiness and emptying.

Patterns to memorize and spirals to carve into just melding iron.  Hedgehogs scatter when her chisel meets its target—they know when to burrow into quills and when to leave the newly born for raptor and asp. These, too, are tasks for the growing, the weft securing what will be carried through cave and into a grotto carved by not-yet kings who knit white bamboo into crowns for the unwanted girls, the July wives. These rivers know each mountain goat by name. Where one leaps to ledge, another drowns and becomes a priestess ever gathering salt and scales.  

She feeds her toenails to the crows each quarter moon, yet the rounding continues. Too late for death to mean more than itself and too late to keep mirrors hanging from tree-to-tree along the riverbank. 

So instead she sits, legged tucked as cranes beneath her thin hips, and asks the brown waters to listen to her stories, to forgive her the gift she will place into the current soon enough. If she sings now, no one will remember. 

She paints a tortoise shell across her widening belly. Each finger collects a thick tip to add swirl and plate to stretching skin. Yellow for the corn mother, grey for the second brother to walk down from the steppes. Kingfishers catch minnows in the bright knife of afternoon and will be back tomorrow, and all tomorrows, and will speak nothing when her boy leads the silver fish to a new kingdom. 

Learn more about Kelli Allen on her website.

About the contributor

Kelli Allen’s work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies in the US and internationally. She is the recipient of the 2018 Magpie Award for Poetry. Her chapbook, How We Disappear, won the 2016 Damfino Press award. Her full-length poetry collection, Otherwise, Soft White Ash, arrived from John Gosslee Books (2012) and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Her collection, Imagine Not Drowning, was released by C&R Press in January 2017. Her newest collection is Banjo’s Inside Coyote, C&R Press, 2019.

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