John Van Houten is originally from Grand Rapids, MI, but currently resides in Buffalo, NY. He achieved his MFA in Studio Art at SUNY Buffalo and his BFA in Illustration at Kendall College of Art & Design. His illustration inspired paintings have been exhibited across Western New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and across the Midwestern United States. In addition to his practice in fine art, Van Houten has worked on freelance illustration for Th3rd Coast Media Solutions, No Threshold Records, and Blunderwoman Productions. In his spare time, Van Houten likes dog petting, prog rock concerts, and drum solos.
I am a fourth generation Piscean, on my mother’s side. My grandmother’s eldest and youngest of four were both Pisces, and my mother’s eldest and youngest of four were both Pisces. My Grandma Buffalo, my Granny, and my Mom: all storytellers. And so it was passed down to me, the awkward sort of storytelling that has so much truth to it that it must be fiction.
Most of the stories I heard as a child came orally, but some were only told in dainty, precise cursive on yellowed pages because they were too dreadful to be told out loud. One such came from my great grandmother, known to me as Vida, who married a John E Byrd and after him a John E Buffalo. She had a type. It was she that wrote down the story of her sister’s death.
They were six and four, and it was tasked to her to keep watch over the young girl. It was the winter of 1907 or 1908, in a rural town in southwest Missouri, and the pond was almost as frozen as the ground. Almost. They travelled out onto the pond, Vida coaxing her small sister farther and farther out. By the time she was able to get back up to the house and drag her parents to the pond her sister had already begun to freeze under the shattered ice.
With the ground being too far gone to allow for a proper burial, they had placed her into a coffin made of stone and situated it into a corner of the north barn. Alone. There it sat until the warmth of spring began to melt away the protective layer over the hill Vida’s mother wanted her daughter to sleep. They had briefly opened the coffin to place into it items that the girl had loved, and that’s when they learned the truth. Vida’s sister had only been in a coma. When she awoke to find herself trapped in stone she had done everything in her power to claw her way out. Only it hadn’t worked, and she perished seemingly a second time, worse for wear.
A great horror settled over me the first time reading these words. Granny could not confirm that Vida had a sister by that name, the old family Bible did not appear to list the child’s name in the genealogy of the family during that time. Was it simply a story she had written, though a great deal different than the poems about her children and grandchildren and her hymns to the Lord?
I try not to think about it, afraid that I too will write stories wishing my sister dead.
When you feel homesick for the colors you don’t have words for, that you saw once in a dream, that’s miss jody. She has two cats in her home, named Alfredrick “Alfie” Boris Karloff the Sea Captain, and another named Nereus “Nereus” The First Mate. Her favorite goddess is Freya, and her favorite place to live is in her home in Centennial, CO. Find her on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter.
Art: Hiding The Ghost of My Favorite Lover From The Others by Miss Jody
you gonna hafta drown
build that house high
build that house high on the mountain
build that house on stilts high on the mountain
raise it up far as you can architect
reach for the stars and praise hallelujah
fill that house with helium
keep it up keep it up keep it up
you still gonna shit your soul
down that porcelain bowl
down that bowl into the septic tank
into the septic tank with the crack in it
the crack that drains all your refuse
all your void
all you excrement
into your very own back yard
keep it up keep it up keep it up
you gonna hafta shit yourself
break your head eat your shit for brains
clog the anatomy of a toilet
break your head open on the toilet
flushflushflushflush you are flush
with overflow, the john is flooding
break your head open and leave it
shattered on the flood
keep it up keep it up keep it up
build your house so high no one can see
havarti on wonder bread and falling out teeth
caviar on saltines served with instant coffee
glugglugglug your vodkaprayerwinespritzer
glug the exhaust pipe of your 6 ton 6 door V-10 F150
you’re good to go, John Wayne, breathe deep, General Lee
drive that truck to the roof of your house
and sit so high, sit so high God sits next to you
keep it up keep it up keep it up
you gonna hafta drown
because a flood is coming
you told me all about it in your little black book
cumslut dumbfuck shit your brains into your hands
you’re leaking deep into the mountain and it’s crack
crack cracking underneath you, your stilts will fall
your truck runs empty after you ate all the oil
that mountain gonna fall
that mountain gonna shake
you gonna fall
the flood will rise to meet you
you can’t hide
I learned that from you
keep it up keep it up keep it up
Jesus says the meek will inherit the earth
and mountain man
that’s the opposite of you
keep it up
art: “warrior” by shannon elizabeth
A Young Man was walking down 17th street towards Union Station. His eyes fixed on a sign, “railroad ticket office” about a block away.
He was unbothered by the chaotic chorus of horse-drawn carriages and trolleys pulling businessmen in dapper suits and dirt-caked workers alike up and down the streets of downtown Denver.
As he got closer he saw another sign to the right of the door with an enticing advertisement, “ticket to Chicago $5,” which seemed too good to be true since it was $50 for a trip to the Windy City.
This would be good to bring up, he thought as he made his way closer to his destination and meeting with Soapy Smith.
He stepped through the plain pine door and asked for Mr. Smith. An affable gentleman with a feathery smile glanced over at the young stranger and asked, “Which Mr. Smith do you wish to see? It so happens that we have two or three Mr. Smiths in here.”
The affable gentleman behind the bar was one of Soapy’s lieutenants and tasked to size up those who came in about the tickets.
“I’m here to see whichever Mr. Smith can get me the best ticket price to Chicago,” the Young Man said. “I saw the sign out front and it piqued my interest.”
After a few minutes, the affable gentleman learned that the Young Man was looking for a ticket home to Chicago to give his father a report on mining prospects.
“Let me go get the Mr. Smith you’re looking for, but first do you want to take a chance at big money? You look like a lucky man…”
“No thank you, but maybe later after I square away a ticket for home,” the Young Man replied.
On one side of the dusty, square room, one of the games made up of a box with large envelopes, each containing varying amounts of bills where you can bet a modest amount to win big. But most of the time the suckers would be lucky to walk away with half of what they bet.
On the other side of the office was another dapper businessman. Before him on the dark wood desk sat a large ore sample from a claim up in Leadville. That was what the Young Man was really looking for. He had been warned about the gambling games in the ticket office and how they were prominently placed to more easily part a hapless man from his money.
Just like clockwork, Soapy appeared from a back room across the way.
“Young Man,” he drawled, in a voice as smooth as an oiled thunderbolt. How may I help you this fine morning?” He came from Georgia, but his voice was more than just Southern: it was the voice of a man confident in his place in the world, and intent on building it up.
For the top con man in Denver, this unassuming man’s look was more unkempt than one would expect.
He wore a homespun vest, free of any ornament, a dark, heavy cotton shirt with a cravat under the collar, and plain brown pants. His neatly-trimmed beard finished the look, which was unremarkable, unmemorable, and notably humdrum.
He looked more like one of his victims than he did the man running the biggest con in town. But maybe this was his aim. In looking like a man leading a humble life, and not the rich con artist he was, people would be quick to think, “How can anyone dressed like that pull one over on me?” And then, before you could say, Jack Robinson, this nondescript, smooth-talking fellow is taking the hard-earned gold dust you laid down moments before.
“I am inquiring about a ticket to Chicago and your sign caught my eye.”
“Oh yeah are you one of these kids that came out to Denver and heading back home because you’re flat broke” Soapy inquired.
“Not at all, I’m in a good spot and can buy a first-class ticket home, but my dad told me never spend a dollar where 50 cents would do just as well so I figured a $ticket will get me home as well as a $50 ticket.”
After a few more minutes of jostling between the two, talk about the $5 ticket faded away and replaced by talk about the piece of ore on the counter the Young Man saw earlier.
The two men wandered over to the counter with the ore with flecks of quartz, sandstone and broad gold streaks running along the sample.
The Young Man let on how he admired the sample, but Soapy refused to sell any of the stock of that mine unless the prospective buyer took home literature about the mine and promised to share it with his father.
“This will be the first thing I’ll talk about with my father when I get home,” the Young Man replied.
Soapy got up and walked to the bookshelf to pick up a few copies of the prospectus.
“What I’m about to give you is very valuable,” Soapy said as he shuffled the pieces of paper before putting them back on the shelf, “Perhaps too valuable to leave my office.”
“Maybe it would be more appropriate for your father to come out to Denver to see the mine’s value himself instead of leaving it to chance that others might learn of it first and buy up the shares.”
This awakened the Young Man’s suspicion. He stood up and walked over to Soapy near the bookshelf to make another plea for the pamphlet one more time.
“I can assure you that nothing will happen to the literature you give me, but my father will be interested with or without it.”
“It would be best if your father came out on such a big decision, but he shouldn’t take his time,” Soapy said. “Excuse me for a moment; one of my men is motioning me about something urgent.”
As Soapy stepped away, the Young Man saw that nobody was paying attention to him. Seeing his chance, he feigned a sneeze and copped a copy of the valuable prospectus.
“I apologize for leaving you in the lurch, but an important matter has come up that requires my attention,” Soap said in a hurried manner. “I’ll leave whatever matters you have to my able barkeep and I hope to see you and your father in my office soon.”
In addition, just like that, Soapy vanished as quickly as he appeared. And so did the bartender. The men left so quickly after realizing the Young Man was not going to be the catch of the day.
The only person left in the drafty room was an old man sweeping out dirt and debris onto the sidewalk. The Young Man felt so much like dirt and debris as he stepped outside with nothing.
The sun overhead was dipping into twilight possibly reflecting the down mood of the Young Man. However, little did anyone know, other than a few well-dressed gentlemen men in town, the Young Man walked away with the final piece of a puzzle to bring down one of the most powerful men in Denver.
The man that Soapy and his gang thought of as a lout and a waste of time was a new cub reporter for The Denver Times. Mere minutes after the uneventful meeting with Soapy he was at his desk on 15th and Lawrence scribbling down his encounter for the exposé.
The Young Man moved to Denver after receiving word that his old friend was the Managing Editor of the newspaper. This gave the Young Man a shot at writing for a daily and his arrival gave the managing editor a chance to bring to light the seamy underbelly of Denver.
“I want you to seek out the vilest men in town, get to know them, earn their trust or invisibility from their scheming eyes,” the editor told his friend. “Be watchful for their contacts in the police and city government, find out their names so we can crack the depravity of this town like a peanut.”
Therefore, he went about his work on the streets, with the look of a rube making his way through town. The reason why the Young Man had a chance at this is the story is his anonymity. There was an understood edict among the con artists not to steal from residents of the town. Denver was small enough that it was easy for them to discern a local citizen from a hayseed fresh off the train.
It really is amazing what a few ounces of whiskey will buy you from the local drunk holding down the bar at the Tivoli Tavern on 17th and Larimer. That is how he learned about the “gold mine” scheme and then planned his ploy to get his hands on a pamphlet.
The trip to the ticket office was the last piece to puzzle and a few hours later the reporter, with the pencil in hand, completed his story and turned it in.
With victory at hand, the Young Man sauntered down Larimer Street wherein front of the arcade, another man motioned to him in salutation.
It was Bat Masterson, formerly the famous marshal of Dodge City, an acquaintance of the reporter. They were talking with one another near the curb when the Young Man looked behind his back and saw, standing in the doorway with a look on his face as if he had seen a ghost, the affable man whom he had met at the ticket office earlier that day.
The Young Man immediately crossed the street, but he knew that his identity discovered. The affable man vanished. He was probably running directly to his boss to tell Soapy what he had seen.
By the time, the reporter got back to the Times office, Soapy and his entire gang were in the managing editor’s office. Soapy was reading the front page story for tomorrow’s edition, composed of the article contained their methods, their haunts, their names and even information about the heavily-guarded prospectus of the rich gold mine.
Nothing was left out; the police and government were implicated in the story. The article spelling their doom was mere hours away from being etched to ink and paper. There’s was no way the gang could stay in Denver if the jig is up. But Soapy had one more card to play before he would abdicate his throne.
“Mr. Manager,” he began in a strong, earnest tone and manner “we are all here, for I could not believe what I was told; now I have read it and I know.”
“When you publish that, these men you see,” indicating his followers sitting about “and I will not be here:”
Leaning impressively towards the editor, in a low intense voice, he offered his terms of capitulation:
“If you want anybody beat up, we’ll do it; if you want any papers destroyed or stolen, we’ll do it; do you want a force in politics, we have it. If you want a ballot-box destroyed, we’ll destroy it pronto. If you wish to dispose of anybody permanently, we shall make his disappearance absolutely final. If there is anything want to be done, we’ll do it. But not publish that story.”
The exposé about Soapy and his gang was omitted from next day’s edition of The Times. The cub reporter received it back.
We’ll never know the real reason behind the Managing Editor’s decision to suppress the story. Maybe the real con was for the Managing Editor to have the upper hand on Soapy and the covenant of a favor tucked in his pocket, and the promise of being able to cash in that valuable chip at any time.
Marcelo Duran is a former journalist, born and raised in Denver who grew up on the North Side of town before it was cool. He spends his free time scrolling through microfilm at the library researching local Denver history. His stories and knowledge about Denver history has been featured on several podcasts in and around Denver.
Tales from the Great Black Swamp is published irregularly by Maxima Strange, novelist, story writer, poet, artist, and currently curator at the Swamp.
i run into wolves running
into me into mirrors into
switchbacks into endless
forests along endless rivers
i run into wolves running
into walls into hiding into
rebirth into fires in rooms
that they may not ever find
i run into wolves running
into death into memory
into the precision of a
scalpel into the western west
and therein i die and i die
and i run and i die and i
see it there on the shelves
the dust attracted to the
light like moths attracted
to fire like wolves attracted
to movement to packs to
new mentality until they too
die. and i too die. and if
not now then when and
if not now then when?
we are ghosts. then when?
ghost #13 is something something something. they are from somewhere, sometime. this one is dedicated to someone someone, another ghost, i’m sure.
Photo: Ruslan Bardash
exorcism / the expulsion
in the same way your mouth
refuses to close
as you apply mascara
there is a ghost here
the world behind you
reflected in the mirror
there is only wall
but the house
eating parts of itself
i can hear you arrive
before you’ve even
fingered for your keys
this is no time at all
as a child i’d wait
my mother would say
it will not come
if you wait for it
what i know
is i’ll die when i expect it
the very least
Kailey Tedesco is the author of She Used to be on a Milk Carton (April Gloaming Publishing) and These Ghosts of Mine, Siamese (Dancing Girl Press). Lizzie, Speak, her most recent collection, won White Stag Publishing’s full-length poetry contest. She is an associate editor for Luna Luna Magazine and a co-curator for Philly’s A Witch’s Craft reading series. You can find her work featured or forthcoming in Witch Craft Mag, Bone Bouquet Journal, New South, Fairy Tale Review, Black Warrior Review, and more.
Photo: Zac Durant
Sometimes I pretend the sky & clouds
are just pieces of really expensive paper
shooting stars are just really beautiful papercuts
when you’re young
you stare at the sky & write with your eyes
imagination is just a really nice optometrist
who encourages your vision even if it misses the mark
as you get older
you stare at the sky & write with your fists
it’s a little more violent
you dream of rocket ships exploding in earth’s atmosphere
jet lag confetti raining down on rooftop parties
where evil men drink hallucinogenic bourbon
out of the skulls of orphan babies
you dream of planes crashing into gated communities
where the rich never leave their mansions
spending most of their time
ripping out pages from chapbooks
written by overworked poets
always on the verge of suicide
making paper airplanes out of the trauma
throwing them into fireplaces
when you’re old
you don’t even look at the sky
every room in your home
in your heart
in your brain
has become a basement
full of wet boxes
caused by leaky pipes
you don’t bother to repair
all the suicide notes & love letters
you’ve penned over the years
disintegrating into mush
the words that meant so much
running into one another
like when cops break up a party
the words left behind
form new sentences
you must dig out of the drowning
then you must read what you sew:
there are no windows in your life anymore
all the lovebirds stuffed into a drawer
tenderness is a thousand dolls taking your breath away
a thousand cats pulling your ribcage like a sleigh
the death you deserve, fireflies sinking to the bottom of an ashtray
you’ve always been an origami car stranded on the highway
and the sun is always setting somewhere else
you just wanted a hotter melt
Meditation by Means of Front Stoop
Two blocks from here
an old man on a rocking chair blesses crickets:
if vibrations could determine direction,
perhaps we too could hear the wingsongs,
perhaps the old man himself would bless us,
perhaps these vibrations—flitting translucencies—
would bless the tiny sea at our feet,
give us morphine and meditation
and the knowledge that
not unlike the old man…
we are all simply figments.
Directions for Levitation when Body has Lost Meaning
Find a thicket in which you are no longer you;
scavenge for seeds, silt, and an eclipse;
in the evening, after visiting hours have ended,
saturate everything green, make the ground vanish;
when you wake to find that your body, too, has vanished,
hoist your hallucinations skyward, ascend.