Paige Swan

Fertilizer for Brains

     Her head sticks out of the dirt like a clover, skull split in a cross with pink matter blooming out of it like the head of a cauliflower. It lies in the grass, unassuming and delicate, hidden by an overgrown blackberry bush. Her hand is wrapped around my ankle, blue knuckles practically bursting through her paper-thin skin. Her mouth hangs open, partly buried in the dirt, and her chalked teeth dangle from her gums like ornaments. Each breath sounds like an attempt to kick-start her lungs but all that comes out are sputters. 

     My shirt clings to my back from the humid August evening, and I can feel droplets of sweat sliding down my neck. A Home Depot bucket hangs from the crook of my arm, a handful of berries spotted by green stems slide around inside, but all I can see is the spider creeping up the wall towards my elbow. I’m meant to be picking berries for cobbler.

“I don’t remember you being here,” I say.

     The bucket slips from my hands, and six pairs of brown eyes tumble into the dirt. Her tongue darts out to curl around one, dragging it onto the bed of her mouth.

“Memories are fickle things.

     ”Her words are garbled as she drowns. 


     There’s a CRT television on my parents’ dresser. A collection of the Pride and Prejudice BBC series on VHS tape line up to form the distant face of Mr. Darcy with Elizabeth Bennet’s detached form photoshopped to sit in the left-hand corner next to his cheek. There are no lights on, and the blinds are closed. My mother lies like the sickly Mrs. Bennet in the dark gray of late afternoon, the comforter pulled up to her chin.  

     Maybe it’s raining. 

   Maybe she has one of her migraines. 

     I crawled up to greet her, my baby blanket clenched in my fist. It is cold and I’ve grown tired of entertaining myself. Wordlessly, I pull back the comforter on my father’s side of the bed and slip into the soft water beneath. 

     She looks at me and exhales amusement.

On the screen, Caroline Bingley and Mrs. Hurst prance around a country ballroom, their noses pointed to the heavens. In unison, I hear them caw like crows about Tower Bridge. Their heads float around the curtain, circling the posts, and I go with them.  


The buildings bloom 

from the pavement 

like tulips opening to the sky. 

They curve around the earth 

like rays and sink back into 

the crevice between the pages. 

I see her face in the corner of my mind

Eyes the color of mud gathered

From the patch by the carport

I pack them down with my palms

And watch them bleed through my fingers


I dream of being swallowed by them.


     The Fern Clyffe Waterfall in Goreville, Illinois flows into a two-foot pool that freezes over in December and floods in April. It is buried in a forest of dead leaves and brittle trees carved by a dirt trail laden with deer skulls and initials encased by hearts. It is tinted blue forever and smells like rotting wood and cicada skins. 

In 1923, it was named the most beautiful spot in the whole state by a group of tourists from Northern Illinois.  

The land once belonged to a woman who collected it in pieces and was eventually bought from her in its entirety come 1949.  

The original entrance to the park was shut down due to hazardous conditions, although the specifics of that are unknown. It can now only be accessed by Route 37 because the last entrance was believed to be haunted.  

     I see her face below the pool’s surface, her mouth the shape of a scream unopened as water falls to fill it. I watch as the sediments at the bottom cloud her eyes. 

     It was once hers.  



     J sits L down in front of the mirror, pinning baby’s breath into delicate curls.


     L looks like a Greek goddess, the kind you see in the courts at the Louvre, all cool marble and stoic drapery while J smiles soft as tulip petals.


     There’s a pistol tucked in her garter and a dagger sheathed in both their boots.


     They traipse the streets of New Delhi and arrive at C’s father’s home, pulling back the shower curtain to a London apartment in 2009. 


     There are zombies at the party. 


     I pull back the lips around his teeth and work his jaw open with my nails to find Pearl nestled on the bed of his tongue. She lifts her head when I call her name, her hair clinging to her face from the salty saliva, and she begins to reach for me. I feel her on the tip of my finger before he rears his head back and out of my grasp and viciously starts to chew. He opens his mouth to reveal Pearl in pieces, embedded in the dips of his molars and scattered over his taste buds. Father smiles as he folds his hands in prayer and leaves me stricken on the church steps. 






Forgive me.


I dream of falling into static streams. 

I dream of being carried by their currents. 

I dream of being swallowed by their electromagnetic waves. 

     I see blackberry bushes dipping their tips into the pool, tadpoles swarming in circles by water displaced by the fall. I see the faces of the women before me, warped by the murky water, and I try to blink the sediments from my eyes, but my pupils are crusted with dirt. I see my hand reach to touch the face that looks the most like my own, but I am strapped to the floor, weighed down by the stones in my pockets.  

     I am caught in the space between everything and nothing. I am a stream made up of melted snow that should be on its way to the sea but instead I bleed into the dirt that feeds the grass which births the farm of my father’s dreams. I am the clam which holds the granulated hopes of my mother and the pieces she gathered from her mother and the mothers before that.  

 I feel them watch me, waiting.  


Where’s the pearl?

Do you have it?

Sometimes I forget that I am drowning. 

Sometimes I forget that I am the product of their suffering. 

Sometimes I like it.  


     The Garden of the Gods sprawls across one of the few cliff sides in southern Illinois. Its mud walls curve and curl upwards from years of flooding. They say that Goddess Divine weaves her way through the forest, picking fruit from the trees, splitting it with her hands to eat the seeds that grow the trees which brush the sky.  

 I found her standing on the edge of it all.  

     Her hair cast across her face, eyes closed to the silver light of the sun, coat billowing in the wind. In my peripheral, I see the eye of a camera dart out to catch her as she starts to tip. I hear her voice even as she drops from the earth.  

     You are my sunshine. 

     My only sunshine. 

     You make me happy when memories are gray.  

     My nana used to rub my back and sing this song to me as I slept. She’d tell me about how Gigi used to play piano on the radio and Great Grandpa built her one in their living room so she could play whenever she liked. When Nana came to visit, she’d have me sit beside her on the bench, place her hands over mine and teach me to play.  


     I still remember the day he sold my piano.  


     I sat in a mustard yellow armchair, embroidered with crawling greenery and white flowers, reading Pride and Prejudice to my mother as she knit a blanket for her bed. 

          Every few minutes, my tongue would trip over a syllable I didn’t know how to pronounce, and she would catch it without looking away from her hands. 

               Every few minutes, she’d pause to ask a clarifying question. 

I thought Mr. Wickham turned into a zombie in the end?

     I thought Elizabeth ran off to London to escape marriage and Mr. Darcy followed her?

          I thought that Lizzy climbed through the wall into that woman’s bathtub? 

               I thought

                    I thou


I lay sleeping

I dreamt I held you in my arms

When I awoke, pearl, I was mistaken


     I sit and watch Mr. Bennett mock his wife for her naivety and incivility while he throws back drink after drink. He talks of the stupidity of his daughters and the superiority of men who read, a note of indirect self-righteousness, as he sinks into his office chair. Moss has grown over the walls and black mold festers in the corners, peeling the blue wallpaper back. My father mutters hypocrite under his breath as he sits on the couch, beer in hand, after telling my mother ————. 

     I am told that I look the most like my mother but it’s a resemblance I struggle to recognize. I pull back the folds of my cheeks and lift the lids of my eyes to see if maybe she is hidden in there, but all I find is pink matter. She remains the same.

     Her face, a portrait in pieces, stares back at me in the bathroom mirror. It stretches blank across the surface. I watch the sun set as her eyes grow further apart and sink into her cheekbones like a mudslide. 

I have my mother’s eyes, she says. 


     In the dead of winter, I dreamt that Georgianna came to stay. She’d crawled out from the lid of my piano and began to play the soldier’s march as thunder clouds rolled in. It began in D minor and morphed into something impossibly sadder. It charmed me. Melting into the earth, I was swallowed. It tasted like what my mother’s garden used to smell like. Carrots and strawberries and rhubarb and beets and lettuce. I feed into it. My body churns into fertilizer and I can’t open my eyes.  

Fertilizer for Brains image 1


     “I was born here,” I say.  

     The ceiling is cracked and there’s a quilted sofa in the middle of the room, a patchwork of patterned shades of green and red and blue. The walls are made of dirt, hardened like a cave, and there are sparse patches of grass growing from them. I watch you pluck a purple pansy from the corner and tuck it gently behind my ear. A spider crawls out of it and tickles my temple.  

      “Where is ‘here,’ exactly?” You ask.  

     Water drips from the ceiling, creating a pool of mud right in front of the sofa. I take a seat and watch as the stream grows steadier, cascading down in a constant fall. It grabs my ankles and laps at my kneecaps, crawling up my thighs and slopping at my stomach. I watch you scrabble at the walls, nails scraping at the dirt, searching for a doorway you’re sure must be there but I know never existed.  

     I can hear the opening music play as Dawn begins to break and the sun spills into my eyes. The water mouths at my chin now, teasing my lips. It smells like the incense my mother used to burn in her bedroom.  

Fertilizer for Brains image 2  


     There’s a CRT television on my parents’ dresser. The remote in my hand is gray with primary color buttons. Sometimes you have to hit it against the flat of your palm to get it to work because the batteries slide out of place. A dull thud beats through the room.  

     There is no remote in my hand. 

     I listen as the TV swallows the VHS tape and it begins to whir inside. It sounds like little voices chirping back and forth to form a chorus. I close my eyes and sink into the quilted blanket. The one that used to be on our couch in the front room before it got too frayed and sun-bleached to be seen with eyes from outside.

     As I wait, I sit and try to recall what the world looked like then. The blackberry bushes that grew along the fence line, the cream-colored tarp of the carport, the trail through the forest in the backyard that was so green. 

     I try and I try, and I try, and I try 

Fertilizer for Brains image 3

But I can’t find what I don’t have.


Fertilizer for Brains image 4      

     There’s a CRT television on my parents’ dresser. There’s a CRT television in my sister’s wagon. There’s a CRT television at our neighbor’s yard sale. There’s a CRT television set up in our garage. There’s a CRT television playing a Star Wars film. There’s a CRT television set up in the shop window. There’s a CRT television mounted in the upper corner of a pawn shop, showing a video of everyone in the store. There’s a CRT television playing Pride and Prejudice in my living room. There’s a CRT television that we’re not supposed to get close to or else it will ruin our vision. There’s a CRT television buried in the dirt. 

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     It sputters and whirs, spitting out unwound tape from its mouth as the screen goes static over her face. 

An eye, a mouth, a hand reaching out. 

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     The antenna begins to spur, twirling like the head of a helicopter as it nestles further into the dirt, kept warm from the late August sun. A spider has begun to spin a web in the upper right-hand corner of the screen, extending across the gray expanse. There’s a discarded piano key jammed into the mouth of the television. The juice of a rotting blackberry dripping down the side, sliding down to mingle with the tall grass, as the static begins to conduct a tune. 

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     She sings along as she sinks, her eyes going in and out of frame, jolting across the screen with each new note. I wait and watch her fragmented face contort Fertilizer for Brains image 8 as she starts to sink. It fills up her mouth then her nose and I pay witness. 

The dirt swallows her. 



Paige Swan works and studies at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington where she majors in Creative Writing. When she is not absorbed in a book or going down an internet rabbit hole, she can be found walking the rocky beaches of the coast or annoying her cat, Waffles. Her biggest dream is to gain the superpower of never needing to take a supplemental vitamin ever again.
A Song for Paige
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