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The Strange Town in the Middle of the Forest by Max Szredni (49)


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            The next morning was humid and overcast, much like it had been when Domei and his fellow pupils had trudged to the museum. The townsfolk gathered about the gallows nervously. This would be their first time witnessing a hanging, and none of them quite knew how they should behave at such an event—should they jeer boisterously? Should they hang their heads in solemn acceptance of the execution's sad necessity? Should they glare unforgivingly, letting Lelae know until her very last breath how terrible her actions had been?

            What resulted was an odd mixture of all three responses; people yelled at Lelae—who stood atop the gallows, wrists tied, long auburn hair knotted beneath a black coif—they were sorry she was such an evil witch who deserved to die, but such was life, and could she please remember what she had done was terribly, terribly wrong.

            To the left of the gallows, Carpenter Clerae leaned on a spade, smoking a cigarette. To the right, Supervisor Toqaer scrawled in their leather bound notebook, face and hands smudged with black ink.           

            Daid stood near the back of the crowd, swaying in a tide of spirits. He was incredibly angry and could often be seen shaking his head fiercely, clearly hoping someone would notice his distress and ask what was wrong. Daid knew, though, despite the egregious amount of alcohol he had ingested (he was sure his insides were now halfway to embalmment), he could never tell anyone that the woman donning the canvas sack was his illegal daughter.

            Just one little slip, he reminded himself, trying to keep his eyes focused, and you could be up there next. Don't want that, Daid. No—if someone asked what the matter was, he must come up with some other conversation item, even if it were far less interesting than the truth. 

            Daid turned to the person closest to him. He couldn't be too sure, what with their coif and the way the world was now spinning, but they seemed young—maybe fifteen or sixteen. "You," he growled.

            The youth turned to face him, clearly frightened by the drunken barber. "Y-yes?" they asked.

            "Do you—wait—do you know who taught me—wait! listen—taught me to shave? My face?"

            "Uhm—no...who?" They were already edging away. Daid would have to tell them quickly, before they escaped into the crowd's anonymous blur.

            "My father! Ha! Bet you don't know what one of those is—no, was—I had one, though. He had a mustache, and his friends had mustaches"—Daid tried pointing at the white bristles on his upper lip but ended up poking himself in the nose—"just like this! My dad—father—my father taught me to grow this mustache. See it? See what I mean—the way the world used to be—"

            But the youth was gone, and Daid was alone. He stumbled to a nearby tavern, forgetting why he had even gone to the gallows in the first place.


            Lelae stood facing the crowd, using all her willpower to try to not sweat into the rapists' canvas sack. The crowd's cacophony washed over her, and she was glad there would soon be Nothing. Like a trebuchet, her body would fall into the space below, and its weight would launch their violating presence far away. Away, away, away...
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The Strange Town in the Middle of the Forest by Max Szredni (48)

CHAPTER EIGHT (continued)

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            Domei went inside, shutting the door quietly behind him. He did not know where his joyful energy was coming from, but it was undeniable, causing the world to shine all the brighter in spite of his recent hardships. His body was an icicle, the albino rat's red eyes and fat slithering tail kept spontaneously reappearing in his mind, making his spine to jolt and his stomach to churn in disgust, his entire body ached, his wrists burned—and yet, somehow, Domei simply felt fresh, as if Life were rewarding him for the trials he had persevered through over the past few days.

            He visited the washroom and gave himself a much-needed scrubbing and tooth-brushing, then went to the kitchen. It took forty-five minutes for Domei to whip the cream and prepare the blackberry coulis. Each time he looked at the whipped cream, he was reminded of the rat's sleek coat, and he had to restrain himself from hurling the bowl against the kitchen wall with the repulsion and loathing that would shake him. He hurriedly sprinkled a dash of nutmeg and cinnamon atop the dish, then placed it on a tray and ran upstairs to his sister's bedroom.

            "Happy Seventh Birthday, Mil!"

            Mil bolted up from her bed, dazed and scared. Then she saw who it was—and the dessert they had brought her.

            "Is that—"

            "—cream-and-coulis? Why, yes it is," Domei smiled, enjoying the perplexed look on her face.

            "But—it's morning!" Cream-and-coulis was always served at night after dinner. Always.

            "So it is."

            "Caretaker Fein—"

            "—left this morning, so they can't say anything about it. I could serve you worms for all they would know or care. Now eat up before I get that tray from the kitchen."    

            Before Domei could say "worms" again, Mil lunged for the dessert, ripping the tray from his hands.

            "Try not to puke," he advised her.

            "Mmph," she retorted, mouth stuffed with dessert. No, Mil would definitely not be mad about yesterday, Domei thought.

            When she was finished eating, he pounced on her bed and play-wrestled her. She screamed delightedly, and he let her win (seeing as it was her birthday). Then they both sat on her crinkled sheets, exhausted.

            "Hey, Dom!" Mil said, "guess what?"


            "The paint is gone from your head!"

            Domei grinned, glad he had finally managed to get rid of the stain. Then his face became serious—like an adult's—and he turned to Mil, binding her eyes to his with a gravity she had never witnessed in him before.

            "Mil, I need you to listen to me now."

            Confused at the abrupt change of atmosphere, Mil nodded her head.

            "Tomorrow there is going to be an event happening. Some—well, a lot—of people are going to go to it. Do you know about it?"

            "The ekzootion?"

            "Yes—the execution. Listen, Mil, I don’t want you to go. You don't want to see what is going to happen there."

            Mil was not the least bit thrilled at his request. "But I want to! I do want to see it! Everyone is going to be going!"

            "Just some."

            "You said 'a lot'."

            "Well, not that many, is what I actually meant," Domei lied. "Either way, it doesn’t matter. Mil, it's not like one of the festivals, or anything like that. People are probably just going to stand around watching the—thing, then go home."

            "Watching what thing?"

            "Somebody...getting hurt."

            Mil's brow crinkled. "Why would anyone want to go to that?"        

            Domei shrugged. "People are strange in this town. I need you to promise to me, Mil, that you won't go."

            "It’s not fair though!"

            Domei did not respond. He knew he wasn't being fair; he just couldn't stand the mental image of his sister watching the hanging.

             Mil looked at the empty bowl of cream-and-coulis on her dresser, then at her hands, clearly in the midst of some kind of internal conflict. "Okay fine, I won't go."



            "Do you promise?"

            "Yes, Dom...I promise," she said, exasperated. She looked like she was about to start tearing up, so Domei grabbed her by her vulnerable sides and tickled her, determined not to let the day's joyous mood evaporate.  She squealed and pushed him away, running around the room in an attempt to evade his chasing fingers.

            "Hey, Mil?" he asked, trying to tackle her.

            "What?" she screamed, dodging him.

            "Do you want to maybe go to the fields later—run around outside?"

            Mil paused. "The clearfield?" she asked, nose wrinkling.

            Domei thought of the white rat and clenched his fists, goosebumps erupting across his skin. "No, a different field," Domei said. "Somewhere else. Somewhere better."
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The Strange Town in the Middle of the Forest by Max Szredni (47)


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            Domei opened his eyes blearily. All he could see was a vague white blur—the rat! Domei started, now wide awake—but no, it was just his own hand lying limply in front of his face. It took him a split second to remember why he was outside and another moment to realize that someone had just spoken to him. He looked up. Caretaker Fein was towering over him, their single bagful of possessions hanging by their feet. Their eyes flitted around Domei, appraising the dried patches of vomit crusting the porch.

            "Domei—were you drinking?" they whispered hoarsely.

            "What? Oh—no!" he said, trying to collect himself, "no no no no, nothing like that! I was just going for a run—ran too hard is all."

            "It’s six in the morning," Caretaker Fein said.

            Ah, so that explained why he was so damp and cold. "Yes," he said, "a good time for running. Best time in fact. Get the exercise over with early. I just overdid it, I think. Wanted to lie down and cool off for a bit before coming in." He was mightily impressed at how fast his mind was working in order to spin these lies, especially considering the dearth of sleep he had experienced over the past few days. Too bad he couldn't tell Fein how brilliant he was.

            "I was up at five," said Caretaker Fein.

            "That's good," he said, confused.

            "The door to your room was closed when I woke up."

            Domei hesitated, then finally figured out where Caretaker Fein was going with all of this. "Oh!" he exclaimed, trying to sound reassuring. "No, I was out of the house by 4:30—around then. Bright and early. Well, more like dark and early. By the time you were up, I would've been long gone. I think I shut my bedroom door behind me by accident."

            Domei watched Caretaker Fein's face closely. He could almost hear what they were thinking: is it really worth making an issue out of? Haven't I gone through enough with this child already? Do I really want to know why their neutral is caked in dried shit? The caretaker's shoulders slumped. Domei knew he had won.

            "Well, go clean yourself up and get warm. I'm on my way out. Thought I'd get an early start myself. It would be nice if you got this mess cleaned up before the next caretaker comes around—they'll probably be here around nine."

            Domei was jubilant, glad his day would not be hampered by the wrath of Fein. "Yes, of course."

            "And, in case you forgot, it's your sibling's birthday today. You should do something special for them. They're still asleep." Domei had forgotten, and he already started planning how he was going to spend the rest of the day with her. He would have to bombard her with nice things early on, he decided, before she could remember she was mad at him for not allowing her into his room yesterday.

            Caretaker Fein began walking to the next house on their rotation. The back of their large coifed head bobbed atop their neck like a white balloon. "Caretaker Fein!" Domei called. They looked back at him. "Thanks for—you know...helping me out with the Authorities. And the like."

            Caretaker Fein looked as though they were about to say something, but ended up just giving Domei a small nod and a strained smile before continuing on their way. "Never in all my years..." Domei heard the caretaker muttering to themselves as they turned the corner, out of sight.
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Hack by Azriel Johnson with Photography by Jonathan Laslo

$15.00 USD
Mixed Media Release (plus Free PDF)

$0.99 USD
Mixed Media E-book (PDF)
This diamond-sharp experiment with theme and variations cuts to the heart of Azriel Johnson's focus in forceful, intense strokes.

Watch especially how he exploits the sonnet form. Johnson doesn't pander: as a poet, he's the real deal.

-- Mary Turzillo,
winner of the SFPA Elgin Award for "Lovers & Killers" (2013)

Jonathan captures exactly with his photographs exactly what I had in mind with my poetry for this collection.
-- Azriel Johnson 
About the author:
Azriel Johnson is the Director of Operations for Writing Knights Press, hosting occasional showcases in North East Ohio.

He was a member of the 2014 Lake Effect Rustbelt Regional Poetry Slam team, 2016 Lake Effect National Poetry Slam team.

He is a wordsmith in many aspects of the craft including poetry, fiction, nonfiction, stage plays and songs.

His current words of wisdom: "People like to dress up their words with labels like 'poetry'. Just write baby, just write."
Publication Date:
Jan 02 2017
1541173813 / 9781541173811
Page Count:
Trim Size:
8.5" x 11"
Related Categories:
Poetry / Subjects & Themes / Death, Grief, Loss

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