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Jeff Friedman

Tea with Honey

She recalled for him the stained curtains, the rippled bread board, the serrated breadknife with its crooked teeth, the cracks in the air, the moths rising from the old woman’s chest. “But you weren’t there,” he said. He walked over to the couch and sat down. “You only remember what I told you.” She shook her head. “I remember what I remember: She was dying. I boiled the water, held the cup to her lips while she sipped the tea with honey.” He held up his palm to stop her. “Why are you remembering this now?” Ignoring his question, she went on: “Even with all the covers and the hot tea, she shivered. I spread two heavy blankets over her.” “I don’t remember any of it,” he said. “And I don’t remember you,” he shouted. “Shh,” she whispered. Then she boiled water, made tea with honey. Sitting next to him, she brought the cup to his lips. “Drink,” she said, and he did.

Night in the Prison

At night, the prisoners clang their tin cups against the cell bars. At first, we remain in our chairs and ignore the clanging, but it becomes so intolerable we enter the cellblock and take away their tin cups and give them paper cups. Though we think we have solved the problem, soon the clanging starts up again, so we enter the cellblock and remove everything that might be used to clang against the bars. Before we can even lock the door, it continues. Now we remove the bars. “What kind of prison is this?” the prisoners ask, “with no metal cups or bars.” “No more commotion,” we say. “Back to your cells.” Then we shut the lights and sit in our chairs outside the cell block. Satisfied, we nod at each other. For a long time, there is silence.  Just as our eyes close and our chins sink, the metallic percussion jolts us. We enter again, but this time, we remove the prisoners and ourselves, exiting the prison in a single line, the echoes of tin cups clanging in the dark behind us. 

The Gift

The boy kneeled, ripping the box open, but inside the box was another box and inside that box, a smaller box, and then a smaller box. Until he came to the last box and opened it slowly. A breath of stale air rose into a small wind, circling the room until it was too big to contain and whooshed out the window.  A palm full of emptiness glittered like bits of aluminum pasted on cardboard.  A hush like laughter spread through the room. There was an invisible star without light, dust from old shoes with worn heels and soles, the memory of a snowflake imprinted on a window, the smell of the flood in the basement, his father and uncle sloshing through gray water in high rubber boots. There was a forgotten wish, a shredded wing, and his mother’s words, “Try a little harder,” and beneath it all the crumbs of a broken sugar cookie no longer sweet on the tongue. 

Vacancies in the Cabinet

The King executed one minister for the suspicious odor that oozed from his skin. He executed another minister for shedding white feathers throughout the palace. He executed a mouse for pretending to be a minister, and another minister for eating all the cheese in the traps. One minister killed himself before the king could execute him, but the king had his guards lift up the dead minister and executed him anyway. He executed the minister of executions for limiting his quota of executions. He executed another minister for starting fires throughout his kingdom and another minister for putting them out. He executed the minister of crowd dispersal because of the clouds gathering around the palace. He executed the minister of his household for her devotion to the river. He executed the minister of dust over and over until he became dust, drifting down from the high windows. He executed the minister of air because too many of his subjects were still breathing. Now he summoned his ministers to the briefing, but only the minister of hair sat at the long table. “How about a shampoo and cut?” the minister asked. He executed him too. 

Jeff Friedman’s newest book, The Marksman, will be published by Carnegie Mellon University Press in fall 2020. He is the author of seven previous poetry collections, including Floating Tales and Pretenders.  He has received numerous awards and prizes including a National Endowment Literature Translation Fellowship in 2016 and two individual Artist Grants from New Hampshire Arts Council.

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