Alphabet War, Alphabet Letters

by Shannon Sweetnam Read author interview March 31, 2015

Hot alphabet soup her mother spewed and fed to her little schools of letters spoon-fed to her letters to decipher alphabet letters spewed hot and piping they leapt from the broth.

The race goes from rosebush to rosebush into the sun and then toward the low stone wall. It has always gone this way. And the one who gets caught is the next one to chase.

Her dreams are simple, but unpleasant—bang she is shot, the bomb explodes crash goes her home caving in upon her, yet she does not wake crying because there at the foot of her bed is her favorite Siamese cat, there in the distance, the sound of Father talking quietly to Brother in the kitchen, the smell of coffee, the knowledge they have returned.

During morning recess, she recites poems to her friends in the rubble-filled schoolyard. She eats warm potatoes for lunch, and numbers march orderly inside her head because she is an orderly person. Numbers can get you places. They are like airplanes and bicycles and buses and trains. She keeps them close to her heart, and requests nothing for birthdays except pencils and paper and books.

Goats—stolen. Grandmother—dead. Mother—dead. Sister—dead or maybe stolen.

She recites poetry to steady her nerves and take comfort in the words spilling from her mouth the same way each and every time. When she rides her bike home from school along the river, Robert Frost pulls her along with his snowy evenings and the sound of the harness bell gets her through the evening alone until the day Brother does not return.

She does not ask Father what happened, but she looks for him in the ditches on the way to school.

Now, if Father should not return, she is to tell the schoolteacher and the schoolteacher will have pity on her or the schoolteacher will not have pity on her. There are cousins in far off cities, but the cousins in far off cities may already have fled. The cousins in far off cities may be dead.

Early morning happiness hoists her out of bed, a rolling swell of good feeling rising like threads of smoke in the chilled air, even as she passes dead bodies in ditches and must shimmy her way past snipers stationed along the bridges.

This is her birthday. A nest of throats hunches up in the hedge as she pedals past, their voices rising as if to greet her. Frost lingers and her ears burn in the wind. She is headed to her school desk and nothing will stop her from learning.

Hot alphabet soup her mother spoon-fed and fed to her little schools of letters spoon-fed to her letters to decipher alphabet letters spewed hot and piping they leapt from the broth into her mouth before the war.

The race goes from rosebush to rosebush into the sun and then toward the low stone wall. It has always gone this way. And the one who gets caught is the next one to chase.

Now, if Father should not return, she is to tell the schoolteacher. But she will not go anywhere without her favorite Siamese cat.

Numbers can get you places, and so can words. They are like airplanes and bicycles and buses and trains parting the air with their sound.

Soon after school, the sun burns low in the sky. She sits outside her home by the broken pinwheels half turning, colored metal petals broken loose from plastic rigging, she listens to the distant pop of gunfire and in the morning is encased in a scallop shell of quiet.

All the next week, she slips on her violet galoshes and pedals in the rain to school searching for Father and Brother in roadside ditches. Have pity on me, she whispers to the schoolteacher and all the tears she has never shed flow until she is blinded like an old woman and he must carry her home. And then she is in his apartment with her Siamese cat and he is spooning her alphabet soup like before the war, the one can left in his pantry, little schools of letters spoon-fed letters to decipher alphabet letters spooned hot and piping he feeds to her letters.

About the Author:

Shannon Sweetnam is a Chicago-based fiction writer whose stories have appeared in Cleaver Magazine, Crab Orchard Review, Dominion Review, Georgetown Review, The Golden Key, Literal Latte, The Pinch, Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built + Natural Environments, and NANO Fiction. She is winner of the 2010 Jack Dyer Fiction Prize and two Illinois Arts Council grants.

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