Poetry and a short story from Sandy Hiortdahl


The Composite 

by Sandy Hiortdahl

Half-reeking Frankenstein composite,

stumbling through the orchard at dinnertime

grabs an apple and flings it headlong

against the wall of Disrepair–

then, going to the wall, scales it to see

a hundred-foot drop into boiling waves,

wishes himself Nemo composite,

sleek gills swimming through anemone:


then spies the patented dorsal fin, sees

tentacles floating outward from it, catfish

whiskers sly around the shark grin,

and knows himself not alone


Branded By Smoke 

by Sandy Hiortdahl


Sliced arrows of smoke pierce

half-clouded oak groves as

meticulous alchemists craft

treasures from the armor

of dead heroes.



by Sandy Hiortdahl

tick tock clock, of a Sun-day too early

heading to noon, leaning into Monday,

which begs for our attention,

mundane Moonday that drags

us through to Tuesday, flops us

down onto Wednesday which

the Germans call Mittwoch, midweek,

hopeful to be halfway done, though

there’s still Thor who won’t be denied

his day before finally Friday and maybe,

if we’re lucky, that easy slide into Saturday,

which from here seems but saturnalian fantasy.



By Sandy Hiortdahl

This is a dream, which, in these post-postmodern days means it’s entirely without worth as a subject, or that its resurrection– a phantasm of a phantasm– is the only thing that exists. Not to say the phantasm itself exists, of course, but it’s all relative to other things that don’t exist.

Four hours later, I was glad to be home. The trip had culminated in an intense stop-over in Susquehanna, where his good friend Jaran led me to the place of the wreck. I’d taken copious notes on the back of an envelope from the Board of Elections Supervisors: direction notes, not adjectives, as the route numbers in Pennsylvania change without warning while the bumpy roads twist and split and divide the mountain amongst themselves. So I noted telephone pole numbers and the colors of a clump of trailers, and the particular lean of a sullen conifer which, itself, stood too close to the pavement. I took such careful transcription of the landscape that I could find my way there in my dreams, long after the abandoning sunlight. Dialogues with myself as I fell to sleep confirmed this.

And so I head back. The getting there is much quicker in dreams, though it’s true you never know what you’ll encounter; twice, at toll booth entrances to the Northeast Extension, I argue with my former high school algebra teacher about what is meant by “the quantity which multiplied by the given quantity equals One.” Both times she is so disgusted with me that she refuses my toll money and I have to speed on through. The third time, she is replaced by Mr. Agathon, with his grease-filthy army coat covered with Post-It notes, “Deers Skinned While-U-Wait” and “Fresh Male Blue Crabs.” As I hand over my bill, I expect some argument from him or at least a grisly smile, but he simply waves me on toward Susquehanna, as if to suggest my doom, another wreckage. Of Agathon and other old men, I offer only another wooden nickel.

Mountain on mountain peers down on the bridge and the Susquehanna River below. Jaran stands, looking more rested and excitable than earlier, which makes sense: as difficult as it is to re-live the death of a good friend, it must be more difficult yet in the presence of a too-eager, too-young fan of that good friend. Then, I’d been careful to limit my questions, just enough bait, playing Jason and Medeia: did he swerve to miss the yellow dog or did the eighteen wheeler blow him over? Was it a heart attack or a gin martini or the mysterious farm truck without tags that caused the fall? What causes the fall of any of us, I wonder. I know that Jaran wonders it, too. Relative to other things that don’t exist, of course.

Jaran wears turquoise suspenders over a neon-white cotton shirt. He hooks his thumbs in them and does a little jig. The cowlick raises a bit higher. In his smooth voice, he says, “So. Here we are again, and after so long…” Someone who didn’t know him might think it had been a long time, not just this afternoon, in the bluntness of October light, that we visited this place.

I start for the edge of the bridge, to peer over and feel the vertigo, but Jaran says, “No no,” the way you would to a slightly naughty child, and catches my arm, “No Grendel games this night… There are more important things to do.”

I ask, “To the depot?” In the light of real day we’d had lunch there.

He says, “Let’s go this way.” I take his hand, and see the steps cut into the rocks beside the bridge. We clamber down them, closer and closer to the water, with its smell of mud and reeds, and then the things not quite seen hopping about in the dark at our feet.

I don’t want to swim the river, never mind the fact that from high up the mountain road it’d looked shallow enough– swift but shallow, with hippopotamus rocks herding in the middle. In the dark, the water contains all manner of oddities, human and otherwise, half-comic book and half-real monster like something out of a child’s bestiary. I shake my head as we reach the edge. “I don’t want to go in the—“

“Suicide. Mountains and their rivers don’t allow for such clowning. We have a boat.”

So what can I say? There is a small boat. He helps me into it. As he poles us into the icy current, the bridge looms above, and like a giant magnet wants to pull us there and under, but Jaran pirouettes with the pole each time the bridge pulls especially hard, flits like a king of the hummingbirds. We grow closer to shore and the depot glows against its rock wall backdrop and downward, a pale yellow shroud on black water. The meadhall smell of beef cooked in herbs mixes with a lighter smell of ale and potatoes. As we start up the steps he points to the back of the depot, which had been empty at lunch time. “You’re going to like this,” he says, “An opera house.”

“Do we need tickets?” I ask.

Jaran chuckles, “Someone– I won’t say who– left us a pair. Come on.”

Inside, through the pub to the opera house, the show is just starting and the stage lights make the actors glow like spirits. It seemed to be about Caesar: Caesar who should’ve known who to trust and who not to trust. Caesar– the magnitude of his betrayal bested only by the magnitude of his favors to those who now betrayed him. Where are they now, his foot soldiers, the ones he promoted so generously to high ranks: having Friday lunches with Brutus, no doubt. “It’s about the art of living,” I whisper.

“And the art of dying,” a sad voice says, behind us. When I look, there is only shadow.

When the show ends as I know it will, Jaran says, “Time to go.” I rush through the pub and out, and partway across the lot I realize he is no longer beside me.

He stands in the doorway. Beyond the tracks, from the other side of the river, echoing against the cold water comes the howl of a dog, not once or twice but four, five, six times.

“Let’s go,” I say, “To the boat.”

Jaran smiles. “I’m just the King’s Indian…” Lighted from behind by the pub lights, he seems far away. He hooks his thumbs in the suspenders, fans his fingers out in an attitude of not guilty. “But trust me. It’ll be okay.”

I face the bridge, terrified.

Then it comes: a heavily-loaded Harley, its beam cutting the night like a lighthouse as it turns from the bridge, past Owen’s Hardware and the two-story apartment where the fat man lived, friend of Mickelsson’s. Ghosts seem to smile from the dark windows, and still the cycle comes, rumbling into the depot parking lot.

I can’t breathe. It swings in a wide arc in front of me. The engine races and I feel my legs move toward it, half step, whole step. He turns, the face shield pure dark save a dotted reflection of bridge lights. He pats the seat behind him with a square, gloved hand. I’m afraid.

Still, as soon as I get on and put a palm on each solid shoulder, I know that I am where I am supposed to be, that no amount of toll-confusion or operatic ennui about how most of mankind stinks– which is the truth, bluntly put– would ever stop me from accepting this ride. As we start off, the bridge seems small, a tame and man-made thing and inconsequential, serenely offering passage over the river below us.

I feel the warmth of the bike’s engine battle the icy upwinds. The tree frogs chirp vanishes in the motor’s hum, as the dog’s bark adds its own strain to the chorus. I hold on more tightly and I whisper (though he can’t hear me) that I will never, not ever, betray him.

The turn approaches, and it doesn’t matter whether it is sunlight or midnight. I try– and want– and see– and then it is pure air, released and flying, above below and beside the wide river. He alone will die this night, and I will live to waken and dream again and again of things that don’t exist.