Gabriel’s Dream

This passage is excerpted from my short-story, “Gabriel’s Dream,” (Assure Press), available to read in full by purchasing this issue of Iris Literary Journal.


The house’s back gate whines like a cat. Gabriel’s toes slip out his sandals, cool on a stone step. He grins—uncertain if God has a voice, or if simply motion in any direction, in every direction—like the wind. Like the wind, he decides.

A woodpecker drums. Pollen lifts off petals. Gabriel feels lifted from under, knowing his weight well; still, the earth writhes. The sun peeks and black floaters emerge, departing his vision. Over the fence at the yard’s end, vining maples converse. He looks back at the house. There was a sycamore here.

Gnats and pollen swath above. He cannot breathe. Gabriel hacks; each cough clicks! in his chest. He leans, palms over his knees, finally breathes.

Gabriel’s eyes shut, to recall the sycamore; a mental list of its features:

  • fattened trunk
  • peeled bark dappled pistachio-green and white
  • helicopter seeds cycling crown to feet
  • black-fretted leaves
  • honeydew pooling where roots shaped into bowls.

Gabriel’s eyes open. No sycamore stands where he recalls.

A door shuts, and footsteps crunch behind him. A young goateed man with furrowed brow wipes his palms on a sage tee. The man stops a truck-length’s away. “What are you doing at my house?”

Gabriel pauses, squints. The man, he looks like Aaron. “No, no… I don’t think you understand. It’s my birthday. This is my house. I’ve come here to remember.”

The man-who-looks-like-Aaron’s forehead creases multiply, and he steps closer. “Do you have someone to call? Someone, sir—to take ya home? I could lend ya my phone—my house phone.”

The cough rattles back up Gabriel’s throat. Hugging himself, he bends with mouth uncovered, fingertips pinching his sides. Each hack quakes dryer and heavier than the last. Gabriel retrieves a pocket handkerchief, dabs his lip. “Your house phone…” He clears his throat.

The man steps closer, no longer looking like Aaron:

  • eyes green
  • tattoo under thick forearm hair: the words, creator of nothing (though, it is unclear if the of is actually or)
  • more tattoos marking his knuckles, ten arrows pointing inward.
  • the same self-pitying look in his brow, but this man seems more aware of his sorrow

“I’m sorry,” Gabriel says. “I think I am confused.”

“Name’s Cory. Did ya get lost on a walk, or something?” he asks, southern accent revealing itself.

Gabriel fakes a smile. Behind Cory hangs the sun’s white miasma—galloping fire—too bright to stare. He glances at his bare feet, and blushes. “I—I lived here before. I wanted to pay a—a visit. They’re sending me away.” Gabriel feels Cory’s eyes on him, so he watches the ground. The silence is thick. “My family planted a sycamore here. Amaya died, and it was me and my daughter Reseda. She grew up, and then only I nursed this house. I gardened zucchini, peppers, herbs. It was hard to stay motivated, only growing them for myself. Sometimes, I’d take breaks, sit in the shade, under that giant tree. Before you know it, I’d wake up hours later.”

“Oh yeah?” Cory looks pleased, pocketing his hands, hiding all but his thumb tattoos from sight. “Think the person who lived here before me mentioned there was yard work done. ‘Intrusive roots’ and whatnot. But this here’s my house now, and you’re just a visitor—not an owner anymore. Got it?”

Gabriel bows his head to the past, to the present, to the way things change in between, to the forgotten memories, and to the memories warped by the love of beauty.

“I’m a nature man myself,” Cory says. “Planted this scarlet oak right here. I got a good feeling it’s coming along.

Clouds open. Beams fall upon a scarlet oak sapling. In the light, its frail limbs resemble the burning ends of cigarettes.

Gabriel knuckles his chin and tries to bridge the logic that someone else would obviously take homeownership of a place that belonged to his past, and that in truth, nothing belongs to anybody—places and people spanning beyond his presence. Like the wind, he thinks.

It’s been at least five years since he moved in with Reseda and Aaron.

The person who lived here before me,’ Gabriel remembers Cory saying.

Then, it’s been well-over five years. Maybe fifteen. All that time spent, in a room under the stairs. It feels like forever. It feels like it never happened at all.

“I’m sorry for trespassing. I am old, and—” A cough. “I think I needed to say goodbye, even though it’s just a place.”


Read the rest of the story by ordering Iris Literary vol. 1 issue 3.

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I Was A Tourist

This poem is featured in my chapbook Palm Lines (December 2020, Toho Publishing).


I knew a girl in silver shoes.
Cold worlds were stamped
into those shoes’ bottoms,
pebbles of thousands.

My breathing mapped yesterday.
All things came and went.
Cold world below that baby sun;
oil spilled down the street.

I knew a girl in silver shoes.
Street clacks were piano staccatos.
The sky drained down
into the concrete’s cracks.

I knew a girl in silver shoes,
her gait cold worlds—thousands—
I haven’t visited everywhere yet.
I imagined being stabbed on this street.

All things come and go.
Here is my life. A piano staccato.
A baby sun, smothered
in oil, can’t see my body
shrunken on concrete.

A request: make me a world
of her, even for the briefest moment;
I, the tourist,
would trade my name to be
crushed, carried, and dropped—
a pebble in silver shoes.

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Below Torrential Hill

Today is the release date of my literary fiction novella Below Torrential Hill, a winner of the 2020 Electric Eclectic Novella Prize and finalist for the Clay Reynolds Prize. It is a poetic coming-of-age tinged in magical realism. Order your copy here.

“Remarkable in its empathy, successfully conveying the difficult realities of death, first love, single parenting, alcoholism . . . Both an ode to loss and to growth, a dialectic that produces a singular tone and a dynamic plot. Within these pages, Koven has constructed an entire universe, and we are left homesick by story’s end.”
—Shannon Greenstein, author of Pray for Us Sinners

“Captivating, awash in poetry and sensual detail . . . beautiful, sad, and full of hope.”
—Charlotte Dune, author of Mushroom Honeymoon

“To say that Koven’s writing is evocative and exquisite is an understatement. Below Torrential Hill is a psychologically intricate story to savor.”
—John DeDakis, author of the award-winning Lark Chadwick Mystery series

Jonathan Koven, author of the beloved poetry collection Palm Lines, returns with a stunning fiction debut. Breathtaking in scope, intimate in its detail, Below Torrential Hill is a coming-of-age about family, memory, and reconciliation.

It’s Christmas, and strange occurrences are plaguing the small town of Torrential Hill: a supernatural comet, undead insects, exploding streetlights, and a presence luring people into the woods. But when the mother of Tristen—a wistful, fatherless sixteen-year-old boy—hears voices from the kitchen sink, all he can think of is running away.

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For Everyone, For Everything

Dearest reader,
sky’s a stolid blue until the sadness enters
like a swig to a swallow, renders love . . .
For you, for what is plain
calcifies with your color;
for you, who steers transparent tongue
toward sunray in song (jaybird crossing
both sides of the brain); all who fall into
their dreams. The mission
we escape is all that is real.
This is for whoever cores the poison apple, reeling
seeds for a newborn forest, and for whoever waits
to clench, at those aged canopies,
God in the mist at dawn—poetry
a channel to gratitude, or a strange blue veil over death;
for you, follower of raindrops
to window corners, seeing in them a memory; sunlight,
laughter; earth, body; I know
everyone keeps a story to share, and another
to repeat to oneself; their sentences run long,
twin confessions in realization of agreement,
to feel free if once. In every heart,
hangs a portrait of the freest self,
always the child in love. Ordering all chaos,
beauty summons the sense, that to receive
this letter means I was never mine; yet now
yours everlasting.

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Ambrosia

I hear the crooning
wolves of the mind, where glory reigns,
killing guiltlessly with friends.

How iridescent, this carol
despite all the bleeding, a garden distanced
from the onrush, below a bodied mountain’s
chatter, the singing dreams itself alive.

Today, tremble knowing this
sacrament belies meat, pulse,
water, stone; everything,
a theory tested. Incautious,
as in phantasm, the bison roam.

Spread me wide with this brand
of summer. Make rivers flow out
my mouth, a trembling bowstring
of my spine to pull back, hold tight,

or else remember a lullaby sung to me,
“Arrorró mi sol, arrorró pedazo
de mi corazón.”

Each season a quest to peaceful sleep,
clasping everything inside, and pray
the song teaches its promise,
“Duérmete mi nene, duérmete pedazo
de mi corazón.”

Born a fleck of star, dropped
into east Atlantic sea, carried
in mouths of trout, among the
cicada shells and cigarette butts,

to pull cogs from clocks, words from
my infancy, banish classification
of veins from other veins,

regretful of my bedlam,
disguised as an agent of chaos,
fall in love, fall with love, fall away to love.

The harmony unites millions of timbres
and to shout along is to learn
of the basic creature inside, and inside me,

a gallows swinger plays to-and-fro;
yet, merely a happy child
amused with a rope.

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The White Wolf Dreams

Clouds vacuumed in quiet, shaving the plateau bone white. The skyline still held a maroon glint, dawn. Surrounded by the glacial mountains, the color was soft enough to miss. Yet, it leaked, coring in the frost a ring of the Sun—where the White Wolf slept.

The White Wolf did dream, as animals do, of her children. When she awoke, their absence bore deeper. Paws tucked under her, she whimpered, though she was glad for the warm light.

A moan replied beyond the massive ice wall. She lifted like a breeze in its direction. Was it them? Could it be them? The horizon’s sliver opened its gash, pouring not sunlight, but a reel of smolder; a singed, boiling haze. From its stain, wind rollicked the lowland, and The White Wolf’s spine straightened. She felt summoned.

She limped to the plateau’s end, at the foot of the hill, and pawed at its icy path. She would not be able to climb without slipping. Cold snow huddled, and she cried again. The moan answered, voice cracking like slowly melting ice. There was no way around. To discover the source of this sound, she must scale the mountain and see beyond the glacier’s edge.

Hungry, she persisted. It had been days since the last meal. Since the blood-lights first blazed the dead sky above, no pulse stirred on the plateau. Only the White Wolf and the wilted earth had watched the Sun pass overhead. She remembered the nights of tectonic roaring, her paws sliding, slipping, leaping; her stomach grumbling passing the firepits, rich with the nutty fragrance of roasting meat; and swimming—swimming in the cold sea, under the hot smoke—swimming under tides thrashing, between floating glass; she remembered escaping the clip and the shot, the blinding lights, the bone-crackle and splash. She remembered her children but forgot exactly where and when they separated. The details obscured as her hunger grew.

When the White Wolf had escaped the fires and fighting, when she had finally reached the plateau, the roaring had finally settled. Yet, she had not expected the quiet to be worse. Exhausted from the silence, like it was an unending ringing in her ears, she had needed sound: a burning desperate plea, a hark in the eve of black night—something, anything—to resound in that emptiness. And there had been a moan, perhaps a whimper or a cry. She could not waste this chance.

She howled. A howl came back.

Clawing up the icy hill, she saw a snowbank up ahead. The White Wolf rammed her body against the ice, the cold stinging her snout. Snow scattered, flourishing the air. She rejoiced, carefully climbing where the snow fell, certain not to slip on the wet slide beneath.

Hours later, she reached the summit’s crest. She panted heavily, swallowing her own saliva for thirst.

The lights above danced like the swirling blood of civilization. They breathed, threading themselves between stars and milking off into the grey mist. She felt her heels lift her into the flare, where no darkness—no shadow passed at all—the sky a pool, a spinning phosphorescent void, draining sound. She barked softly, weak. Nothing spoke back.

The White Wolf carefully slid down, then chased to the hill’s foot, on the other side of the mountain. It looked the same, matted with snow, stretching for miles.

There! A silhouetted figure elevating from the blankness. It also lifted, pulled into the hands of spilling colors.

The White Wolf rushed, barking. The reply, louder now, pierced her ears like a siren. She barked again. Something called back. Was it them? Could it be them? Like the whorl above, a storm teemed her skull; a sparkle behind her eyes flowered in darkness; a white firework spattered. She could not see anything, only the whiteness of snow and noise itself, coursing past her.

She arrived at the figure’s edge.

An abandoned boat, sail tattered upon the deck, was frozen in the snow. Splinters of wood littered the ground surrounding it. Her long nails scratched the cold deck, feeling the hollowness inside-and-out. The White Wolf whimpered. The boat whimpered back, slower. She had only heard her echo. There was nobody and nothing on this frozen boat, merely the memory of a certain motivation—to go somewhere, to arrive elsewhere. Without a creak, it voicelessly prayed its voyage on the deadest ocean, rocking a hull against imagined waves. Pinned down, it only existed a silhouette; to be appreciated from afar, to hear the echo of one’s last chant, to be realized as distilled adventure—bearing nothing but empty promise.

Yet her echoes, when the White Wolf heard them, boomed the glorious pain of surviving. It proved something, despite she the only one who listened.

She lay on the tattered sail, cradling her own body in the warmth of dreams.

The sky’s dancing sleeves continued burning, and the silence resumed.

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To Hold Every Flying and Falling at Once

This poem is featured in my chapbook Palm Lines (December 2020, Toho Publishing).


I have told you that I love you, though its
meaning severs far beyond the words,
as rapids might burst open tightest
banks; less like a leak and more
like tide, love’s endless body
overflows, engulfing
all our days, free
and finally
unwritten.

What becomes an echo
of the future—an echo unlike
sound’s echo—but a peal of color,
feels safer than the loveliest words
hushed. I breathe swollen with these
echoes every evening, watch your mouth
pucker and dip, cupped by a flare of moonlit
haze, bleeding from between the window blinds.

Delana, could all history distill into this moment?
Your hair combs one into another, highest crown
dribbling rings the color of night light to my lips;
your ankle tattoo mapping the place we first met
flat on the hilt of my foot, your pulse our rhythm
(or the tide wash of your childhood ocean home;
or the slow inhaling-exhaling of my last memory
before sleep repeated: I love you; I love you, too).

Here, I show no resistance to forgetting my
shape, name, and seal. I learn that I was
never anywhere else. Let the ocean
breeze steal sand off the shore;
my love a question and an
answer—a lifetime
offering.

You rise and
you settle, and slowly
become like a current rushing
through my veins. My arms raft all
of you (pain, hope, wisdom), and we float
to the words’ truest meaning; or how we feel
truest love, and crest over the shortfall of language.

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Elegy for the Complete Soul

This poem is featured in my chapbook Palm Lines (December 2020, Toho Publishing).


Walking “free” in a city,
where what is seen
fuses two to one.

Window glass abstracts
the shape of self
into more people.

Their voices run out, deflate
to tumbleweeds, drift
for fear of stopping
may release them
to the most severe listening.

An echo cries in the well of our nation. Body after body after body after body after body after body after body after body after body after body after body after body after body after body.

None notice the metropolis
unites in a harmony.
Up! Family in a mist
ballooned with laughter
dealt by mothers with priced happiness;
some children cry, fathers forget or
die returning. Every window,
another and another.
It cannot be denied

there are those who remember,
and those who love.

In the din of the streets, I hear
a new psalm. I look for God
not as messiah, but these strangers
among the masses;
their eulogies;
their names, my name, scattered
like fallout among the wasteland.

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Pattern of the Wind

This chapter is excerpted from my award-winning novella, Below Torrential Hill, available now from Electric Eclectic.


There is a teenage boy and his name is Lave.

When Lave’s mother’s body became ash in the end, he didn’t want to look as they released her. It was only yesterday, and he was only fourteen, but today he is changed altogether. The ashes ascended from the vase in his father’s hands and, struck by sudden wind, swiveled with assurance toward Lave, fully swallowing his crouched figure while surfing away. The gusts of his mother’s ash pounded like a colony of bats’ wings beating against him. He wept at every sensation. While caught in the storm, he swore he abandoned his physical body in a fit of screaming, to visit a nameless realm bosomed in sound. The remains of her love must still be there, because he swore he felt her presence in the onslaught. When the breeze passed, his father embraced him for so long he nearly became desperate for escape. Lave knew then he was loved, but he still didn’t feel safe.

The morning rises the same as any—his bedroom windows refract beams onto his carpet. Seated at the edge of his bed, Lave coughs. He sits there. Breakfast does not interest him. Fleeting epiphanies arrive one after another. One after another, he swats them away. Minutes pass, but time stretches immeasurably. Memory fragments come; moments collected from different days, spent with Mom at the dinner table, preparing for school, driving in the car—blend together, stretch, coalesce. Slowly, the beams rove closer to the wall, as the room basks in daybreak. One final message is delivered. The end of the world is always approaching, he learns simply by matter of fact.

“I’m going on a run,” Lave peeks into his parents’ bedroom. His father packs his mother’s clothes from her dresser into white plastic bags. The words are foreign, Lave’s body foreign. Never willingly gone on a run before, inside him steeps a cry desperate to be unearthed. It must release somehow—and if it cannot—then he might bury its reminder with a pulse thundering in his ears.

“Where?”

“On a run,” he repeats.

“Right,” his father says, clutching the red pajama top, from the ones she wore last Christmas. Dad stuffs it in the bag, looks back with a smile Lave recognizes as forced. “But where to?”

“I’m just—” Lave touches the bridge of his nose. “I need to move and feel awake. I need to wake myself up.”

“That’s fine. Do your thing, little man. But listen, I need your help packing this stuff up once you’re back. Some of it we’ll keep in the attic. The rest, we can take to goodwill and clear some space.”

Lave nods.

“Hey,” Dad continues forcing a smile. “Hey, I love you—you remember that, okay?”

Blood rushes to Lave’s head. The sound of windswept ash recalls itself. The air is thick as Lave huffs through clenched teeth. Quickly, he steps through the hall and outside, sneakers still in hand. He crouches on his front porch and gazes at the street of his childhood, the same as it always was, never the same again.

His mother—the possibility of her vanishing forever, along with the heaving reality of it—on his cheek he remembers her Christmas morning’s kiss. Had he wiped it dry, then?

Tears speckle Lave’s eyes, glimmering in the sun like two green ornaments. He tries to recall the sound of Mom’s voice, calling his name, only remembering the word, “always.” It was something she used to say after “I love you.” His chest throbs, his throat tightens; the air feels thin as he gasps. To remember is too much, far too much. He knows his father must feel the same. His father’s calmness surrenders little guilt in its appeal, to help them prevail through this unspeakable loss. But, he wondered, how do I forget? How does anyone forget?

A sweat bead streams the back of his neck and down his spine. He places one sneaker down beside him and spins the other in his hands. Rocks are lodged in the sneaker’s outsoles. He traces his finger along the maze, unveiling the stone relics and tosses them to the asphalt for another runner to carry away. His feet slip in the shoes and he laces them.

The clouds puff to their brims and perspire. The rain barely touches the ground.

Lave runs.

His eyes are steady, static, unprejudiced, catching a slight glimpse of the sky’s hidden inhale, that which meets earth’s gravity and sequence—and its exhale, which moves forms about the corporeal surface. He marvels at the simplicity, push, then pull. Every wave evenly unfurls. Running down the street, Lave’s body is a cork to a tide. The white-throated swallows migrate to a region his eyes cannot contain. His childhood remnant wearily follows their spoor. And though he runs to a space between body and thought; running with wind in his ears, running from, running to, running in pursuit to know himself as a fragment and not as a fourteen-year-old boy; he demands, by means of the chase alone, a destination somewhere between the regions of inhale and exhale.

But Lave’s hands have fleeting grasp, palms meaning only to make briefest impact. The truth is, he rather spread his fingers wide, capture an impossible honesty, know what life would be without his feet firm on the ground, without his memory’s intrusion—without his father, without the responsibility of “clearing some space.” Is there no separating oneself from the flux? With the razor-sharp shuffling of his legs on a roadside, pressing all his weight on the idea of bursting like firewood, turning to smoke, lifting the universal facade away, he knows there is something else. There must be something else.

After all, Mom promised Lave, “Always.”

He must learn harder, to be better, to fulfill her promise himself.

The sun pinches the sky tight like a poster. Blue, blue stretches everywhere. He feels, even in his heart, there must also be blue—he does not know what this means.

The sidewalk beneath him fades smaller. It simply merges into the light hues, blending with the skies. It is as if going this fast can make everything else feel far away, as if he is before everything.

He swings his arms wider as houses, oaks, clouds reel backwards, deep into his periphery. The sky barely hangs, loose and flowing around him. He should not remember his pain, nor the lost pain of his mother anymore, only the cold flight of blueness. The distant, the impossible.

The end of the world is always approaching, he kicks deliriously behind him. But I can keep moving. His pulse catapults, brow bearing high, eyes fixing on a dormant horizon. There is no great unveiling but, instead, two cloud rings of tremendous breadth, circling. They dwell separately from one other in harmonic spin, slowly rotating. A long grey ribbon unravels from the separate clouds, sprouting timidly into consciousness. They leer, and Lave runs, a day away from his mother’s ascent, toward a face in the clouds. It looks just like him, only thirty-five years older.

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