Tantra Bensko




It isn’t so much that I am I, as that I am something else entirely.

The edges of the pond feather out into the clumpy wool of the sheep that lie along it, lazily dipping their lips into it it, lapping, until the donkeys swish their tails, or snort, or scratch, and all the sheep leap up and gather underneath them.

Crimson and pumpkin flatnesses flecked with amber fall from trees, saturate in water, float on top of others of scarlet, apricot, and gold. Over the surface of the water float the invisible sounds of my mother wanting me to stand underneath her and look up at her love, the searing longing she has for her son, the softness of her arms, her fingers petting my head, putting my hair behind my ears. My mother no one but me gets a chance to see, my special mother, who says she will never let anyone get her down, or put her down, or let her down. And that I should never, either.

I am taller than anybody knows. I hide it well, inside the wheelbarrow my father pushes me around in, prentending in public that I can’t stand, much less walk. Big cobalt blue blanket against the chill I say I feel even in this heat of Indian Summer. He reaches down to wipe the sweat, as he pretends to swat a mousquito off my forehead, while whispering some encouraging mumble about how it’s OK to risk being seen; no one will guess.

The girls beside the pond, the twins, look sideways at me, and look down. If they could turn just one eye my way, they would. One wide eye. The other eye ruminating on the sheep, the hawks, the jumping fish. One of the twins holds a paper construction vaguely like a segmented Venus Flytrap over her hand, opening, closing, while the other squeals questions, answers, numbers.

Papa’s hair, less red than mine or Mama’s, shines. He’s eight feet tall, the shortest in our family, his beard so red it startles some people into a kind of poetry, their words missing connections, highly charged, metaphors, and grasping with implausibility. No one here knows how red my mother’s hair is, or how giant she really is. I want to show them how much she loves me, when she comes from her hidden hut in the forest, covered with dead leaves, to our house in the safety of night, to hug me in my sleep. But I’ve never told anyone. I hardly tell myself. Some days, I remember. Other days, I find it too hard to believe.

Mama takes me home awhile some nights, by the magenta ocean and auburn boulders under the deep red sky. She lets me be her “small one,” lets my ridiculous size be nothing extraordinary, just me, her towering above me as a Mama should. She lets me stretch my outsized legs, and run so fast with her along the shore we fall and laugh inside the sand, throw it at each other, cover each other with its grainy pinkness, against our whitewhite skin in the moonlight, throwing it and spitting, opening our eyes cautiously, with laiden lashes.

But now, I squeeze the cramp in my calf, and ask to be wheeled toward the twins in gingham. My father’s face elongates, tired, his mouth wavering. He pushes me in their direction, crunching leaves, and whistles a song about a ship on the ocean, a ship that disappears at night. I whistle harmony, better than singing, with my voice that cracks these days. Time for a growth spurt soon, it says. What then will you do? Watch the girls watch you grow to big for any wheelbarrow? Watch you disappear into the fog, into your height? A blanket of cobalt blue, the sky below your head.

“Hello,” I say, my voice tottering on edge.

“Hello,” they say, in unison. What next. They look out at the pond as if summing it up in their minds theatrically, showing an internal appreciation, as if they only now saw it for the first time and were in profound awe. In lieu of conversation. I look too, in answer. Eloquent, I hope. Poetic.

“Want to thumb wrestle?” Hailey asks. She holds out her dainty hand, seriously.

All I can do is pull my hand out from under the blanket, like a Kraken emerging from the deep. Fingertips first, fingers, knuckles, hand, wrist, epic. Their eyes follow the slow excursion of my digits. Forearm, elbow, red hairs on white arm. I hold it out, thumb up, ready. My thumb is the length of her hand.

Opal anxiously opens and closes one finger at a time, the traditional white paper construction, just like those most children have created for decades, on her hand still, with numbers on the petals. She sniffs, and rubs her nose with number 5.

Haily engages her hand with mine, as my father clears his throat, and looks away politely. She counts off and then we start, thumbs moving back and forth, like a snake preparing to eat its baby if it can only hypnotize it.

Mine dreamslow to keep from breaking hers, which dart to outwit mine. Her eyes scrunch, lips contract into invisiblity, making her cheeks rounder, redder, straining against their skin.

A fish jumps from the pond, a yellow leaf stuck to its skin, making a donkey jump, and the sheep run underneath it. The only female hand mine has touched has been Mama’s, nurses’, and a baby’s, once, before my hand was slapped away from the baby’s immediate scream.

She pins my thumb, but my heavy sweat means I can pull it out, and she swears, quite improper for a little girl in gingham, and her sister giggles, looking at me with her head cocked to see how modern I am, how well I flow with a curse word. My father sighs and walks away.

I swing my thumb around on top of her teasing one and she pulls out, but I nab it again, and hold it, as her face turns pale. “Best two out of three!” she yells.

She shakes her hand, valiantly, and holds it out again, her jaw jutted. We’re on. We speed our thrusts, move our elbows more than the game allows, laugh and breathe more quickly. Opal cheers for both of us.

She reaches around my thumb from the outside, her elbow bent up, and grabs, almost gets me, and Opal calls her on it. “Play fair!”

“You call this fair? Whose sister are you, anyway?”

“What’s not fair is that he doesn't have to go to school. I hate school. He should at least tell us why he doesn’t have to go.”

As Hailey starts to answer, I catch her off-guard, and push her thumb down, but she oozily pulls it out from under mine and places it on top instead, pushing down with all her strength, lifting her butt for leverage. Opal counts, while opening and closing her fingers in the paper numbered thing, and I watch her mauve lips move, closer than I usually get to anyone but Papa. Hailey screeches and runs around, scattering the donkeys, thus the sheep who scoot below them.

“I won, I won!” she sings. I don’t bring up that we are equal in this game, that we are tied, with the third, the decisive wrestle waiting and floating in the woolen clouds like a wondrous prize, forever.



Tantra Bensko teaches fiction writing through UCLA Extension Writing Program and her own academy online, bolstered with her MA from FSU, and MFA from U of Iowa, and years of University teaching behind her. She has a couple hundred stories and poems in journals, 4 chapbooks, 2 full length books, with others to come out later, such as Yard Man from Make-Do Publishing. She promotes experimental literature by other authors through her magazine, chapbook publishing, resource site, articles, and much reviewing. She lives in Berkeley.


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MadHat, Issue 15, Winter 2013-2014