Literature is not like fine wine

Literary magazines are not very popular these days.

That might seem like bad marketing in the pages of a literary magazine; it doesn’t reflect the sort of positive self-promotion a PR firm might recommend. That’s because we are a literary magazine and don’t make enough money to hire a PR firm that could stop us from talking about this.
There’s a tension, not just in literature but in other art like movies and music, between “pop” creations and highbrow art. One the one hand there are the action movies, the thriller novels, and the shallow songs with a contagious beat. On the other hand there are what are often called “indie” movies, books and films that have small, devoted and almost always insufferably snobby audiences.

On the one hand, fans of pop art seem to feel that if they don’t get an adrenaline rush, a shot of pure entertainment, it’s not worth their while. And art snobs seem to feel that if bands or writers make it big, their art must not be very good. Otherwise, why would so many dumb ordinary people appreciate it? This may be one reason why, if an indie band becomes successful, it is invariably accused of “selling out,” and its fans go find another band with an exclusive group of fans who are the only ones who “get it.”

On the literature side, it sometimes seems that the most praised works of writing are those that are dense, difficult to understand, and have almost zilch entertainment value. The characters are unlikable, their adventures are uninteresting, and the genius of the piece is bound up in the “lens” through which it views the world; the artists and their uniqueness then become the focus. This is not objectionable to the artist, of course, but it can be very boring for everyone else.
It seems that artists have lost their way. On the one hand, we have immensely talented people creating works that are technically very skillful, but not really that appealing or interesting (think John Updike). If a piece flops, it’s convenient, and less painful for the artist to blame the audience. Those poor plebes — I’m just too good for them to appreciate.

And on the other hand we have works that are thrilling and catchy, but not skillfully done (a good half of everything you’ll find in a bookstore, by a generous estimate).

We’re all used to the movie critics who slam films that don’t meet their high standards but inexplicably draw huge crowds. Maybe these critics would get more respect if they also tore apart works that are technically well done, full of artistic genius and soul, but virtually unwatchable.
Great art does not have to be popular, of course. There are many reasons for a creative work to never become famous — the editor wouldn’t publish it, the agent didn’t think any radio stations would be interested, the artist kept it in her attic and never tried to get it published, and so on. But some art deserves to be unpopular.

The artist’s goal should be a creation that is skillfully done, interesting, enjoyable, and meaningful. If the Sacred Cow and other literary magazines publish such pieces, we might be able to stop moaning about how nobody likes good literature anymore.



By Sarah Stoltzfus Allen

I can’t help but feel sorry for the poor saps who do nothing but sit and wait. Waiting doesn’t come
natural to me. But waiting, it’s what I do. Waiting for Mama to come back home. Waiting for her to get sick. Waiting for her to get better. Waiting for her to leave. Waiting for her to die. I finally got tired of waiting and put a little too much of her crushed up pills in her bottle of Johnny Walker (or whatever her flavor of the day happened to be that morning) and waited one last time.

“Where’s your treasure, young lady?” Those were the last words I would ever hear slur out of her mouth.

“I’m not a lady, Mama. Never been one.” I looked one last time at her thin body as it laid there in them dirty sheets. Once her eyes closed and her chest stopped moving, I headed for the train station.

Done waiting.


By Jason Ropp

As I man my post —
Espresso bar in bookshop,
An old fellow with
Matching blue windbreaker
And Gilligan hat strolls
Hands gently behind back,
Admiring books, furniture,
And ventilation system.
Wide eyed in old age
As a child.

The Walkers

By Ben Herr

Tree spinI crouch between two holly bushes, breathing heavily. My hiding spot is nestled between two houses within the sprawling development I’ve spent this wild night in. I may not be in the best hiding place, but at least I can clearly see the only two ways to get to it. The coast is clear on both, yet I can’t escape the feeling of being watched. But it’s probably just paranoia. As much as the movies love the jump scares and surprises, they never capture the feeling that every bush, corner, tree, building, or garbage can hides a nemesis. At least, not to the level you actually feel it when you find yourself dead center in the first known, real life zombie outbreak.

I hear the dreaded music again, and I hit the deck, scooting as close to the wall as I can. I can picture what is coming perfectly, for I’ve seen it at least a dozen times tonight. Yet I feel the need to get another look, that somehow, this is also the first time. I crawl along the wall to the house’s front corner and crouch behind another decorative holly, peering around the corner to get a better view.
The well-paved, marking-free road is empty, but not for long. As the tinkling music box tune becomes more audible, he rides around the corner. It’s one of what I call pipers. The zombie pedals a rickety bike around the community, ever so slowly, and ever so unsteadily, an old music box playing a repetitive, eerie tune from the basket in front. The music is accompanied by a mild chorus of growling from the ever growing crowd of walkers not far behind. The music seems to draw them together; avoid the pipers and you can avoid the zombies, I’ve learned. But I notice a hobbling figure come out of the darkness on the far side of the street to join the crowd. My heart pounds as I twirl around, having forgotten to check behind me. There are still more out there who haven’t yet joined to packs.

I think about how I got stuck in this disaster. I suppose it’s no different than Little Red Riding Hood. A simple trip to Grandma’s house landed me in great peril. And now I’ve been running around for hours, lost and disoriented in the development, unable to find a way out, and turned back by a piper whenever I get close. Perhaps this is why I can’t shake the feeling of being watched.
With the pack almost even with my hiding spot, I realize it’s time to get out of there. I scurry to the back of the house and scan the terrain. A joint system of back yards, with the next row of houses about 50 yards away. An old shed stands about halfway through the open space. I’ll make it there first.

I take a few more breaths, then dart to the back of the shed. My head goes on a swivel, looking to see if I drew any attention, but the night remains still. I creep to the front of the shed, ready to run to the next row of houses. I take a few breaths, trying to keep my breathing quiet and under control, when the shed door flies open, slamming into my forehead, and a growling zombie stumbles out.

“Why was there a zombie hiding in a tool shed?” I wonder, losing precious moments as the creature closes the few paces separating us. I frantically backpedal to stay out of reach, creating enough space to turn and run. Yet as I turn, my feet tangle and I start to fall. My head turns forward just in time to grab onto the tire swing directly in front of me. I hold on as I swing forward, then start to spin as gravity pulls me back. I’m heading straight for the zombie. Fortunately, the swing rotates my legs forward, and I’m able deliver a strong kick to the thing’s chest, knocking it down. I let go and drop to the ground.

For the first time, my thought is not to flee, but to fight. Though I have nothing to fight with apart from the tire I regain control of as I stand up. The zombie is coming back. With no other option, I push the tire over its head and down around its arms, forming more or less of a straight jacket. Then with a strong shove, its feet leave the ground and it starts swinging back and forth. I give it a strong kick to add a spin to the zombie pendulum. Inspired by the weak growl that escapes its lips at the peak of each swing, I take mental note to patent an idea for an undead grandfather clock.

I’m not sure what to do with the zombie now. This is the first one I’ve encountered and dealt with, instead of simply running away. I haven’t yet considered the ethics of killing a zombie. I don’t even know what’s making them zombies. Virus? Supernatural miscue? I think of the pipers. Hypnosis? I understand nothing of the situation, nor can I formulate any guesses that make logical sense. The whole situation reeks of an elaborate explanation that will never be made clear.

I figure the zombie won’t be going anywhere soon, especially if zombies are still affected by inner ear function, so I decide to check to the shed for anything useful and leave poor creature in its swinging prison. I am surprised to find a well stocked tool shed. Rakes, hoes, shovels, sledgehammer, pickax, screw drivers, crow bars, hedge clippers, machete, rope, weedwhacker, and chain saw. My hand hovers ironically over the chain saw for a few moments of consideration, before I pass over it and choose the pickax.

After dashing away from the shed and the immobilized zombie, I find a dark corner to hide in. I spend some time trying to retrace my steps, trying to regain a sense of direction, but I am irreversibly lost and confused. The roads loop around too much and end in too many dead ends to make any sense of where I have gone. What was a large housing development before now seems like an endless jungle of identical buildings, with legions of chiming pipers patrolling the paths. There is but one option: Keep going. I look around once again, searching for the invisible pair of eyes that I keep sensing, but see nothing.

Pickax over my shoulder, I move forward, now more deliberately, trying to track where I was going and where I had come from. For the next 10 minutes there was neither sign of life nor unlife. I follow roads, cut through properties, and double back when I suspect I’m going in circles. But I still feel no closer to finding my way out by the time I see another piper.

This time, I see them even before I hear them. A massive pack is scattered along the road in front of me, walking from my left to my right. The piper is already so far past, he disappears from view shortly after becoming visible to me. I think through my options to go back, but it is a long way. I would try to wait it out and let them pass before I keep going.

I drop to the ground and crawl the remaining 30 feet from my vantage point in a cluster of trees to the nearest house, ending behind the glass-enclosed back porch. I then follow it to the back corner where I can watch what is happening without risking much visibility. From my spot, I watch them file past like an unending row of stumbling ants. Again, I wonder, what were they? Was there anything human left? Were they animal, lower than animal, or still almost human?

A twig snaps behind me, throwing my heart into a frenzy. Involuntarily, I spring up and spin around. I am frightened by one thing, and terrified by another. I am frightened by a lone zombie hobbling toward me, no more than 20 feet away. I am terrified, however, by the sound of shattering glass. The pickax is still over my shoulder when I spin.

Surprisingly, the lone zombie stops in its tracks. Startled? Scared? Or just distracted? I am frozen, still tense, still kicking myself for blowing my cover. I sneak a glance over my shoulder. The parade has stopped following the music box and has turned off of the road and toward the houses, approaching in a wide, sweeping wall. Going forward, or even sideways, is no longer an option; I have to, once again, turn back.

But the lone zombie still stands in my way. I would do my best to make quick work of it, but we seem mutually frozen. It stands there, staring at me, looking almost uncertain, and I stand still because I don’t understand why. I look into its vacant eyes and see nothing flicker, no gleam of humanity as I had hoped. A few moments later it again starts forward, coming for me with a growl. I lift the ax and give it a broadsided blow, knocking it off balance enough to run by.

It doesn’t take long before I have once again put good distance between myself and the zombies. I no longer have a plan for where I am going. I no longer feel I can do anything but aimlessly wander. I can only think about what is really going on, and about that lone zombie. It looked completely unlike a human, yet did not look completely brainless and dead. It looked somewhere slightly in between, or at least, like it was battling to become so. What was it?

For that matter, what am I? How do I know I am fully human? I think of the events of the evening. They seem far from sane. I look at the pickax in my hand. I have ended up with far from the most practical weapon from the tool shed. Had I made the selection because it seemed awesome, or was there some unknown factor in the decision? I think of how I was seemingly blocked at every turn in my attempt to escape from a place that makes a corn maze seem like Alcatraz. Either I am the unluckiest of unlucky survivors, or I am doing, thinking, or perceiving something wrong. So something, perhaps, is working to keep me in.

What did the movie characters do? When things went wrong, they always found a way or a reason to keep going. But this brings another thought to mind. In the movies, they often have the same pop culture knowledge of zombies as the real world. They reference the knowledge of zombies, but act as though they are seeing them for the first time. It seems scripted to us, the viewer, but seems real to them.

I think again to unshakable feeling that someone or something is watching me. I realize it’s not just the fear that zombies are near that I just don’t see. It’s something bigger. The puzzle pieces fall together. Am I just a character being written, or more likely filmed, into existence?

Life of Pie

By Amanda Miller

Chocolate, pecan, cherry, pumpkin. Nut, cream, fruit, custard. It can be topped with fluffy meringue, whipped cream, buttery crumble, or a dollop of ice cream, but no matter how it is served, it’s pie. And everyone loves pie.

Multifaceted and many-splendored, pies come in a plethora of types and tastes. Billowy egg whites piled onto a rich lemon curd are just as much a pie as peanut butter crumbs sprinkled above and below layers of cool whip and vanilla pudding; quintessential latticed apple is in the same recipe categorization with unusual bourbon chocolate peanut.

In spite of the limitless possibilities for variation in the filling and topping of this dessert, pies do not come in all shapes and sizes. They are round, and typically within an inch or two of diameter. No one makes tiny square pies, you know.

The other common denominator comprises the actual foundation of the pie — the crust. There is only one style of true pie crust, the traditional pastry dough. It’s the shell within which the rest of the pie is allowed to come into being; that flaky underlying layer is the component tying this dessert category together. Whether it is blind-baked or baked filled, single or double, the crust makes the pie. A pie is literally not a pie without it.

This is where it gets tricky. Although it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t want to eat pie, those who make them are a bit fewer and farther between. In fact, the mention of entirely homemade pie with crust is often enough to trigger waves of admiration and/or tremors of fear in any baker, nascent or experienced. That standard pie crust is essential and inescapable, an arch-nemesis and a bragging point of home cooks.

I sometimes wonder if the aura of holy trepidation is actually based on reality or more in the socially accepted and perpetuated reputation of elusive perfection. I’m usually too busy happily and harriedly trying to keep the dough chilled and the flour dust contained to ponder on it for long.
I’m so happy muscling my wooden rolling pin over the stiff disc of fresh pastry because I love making pies — maybe even especially the crust. No one else I know likes to make pie crusts; most rarely if ever even attempt it (although maybe I just need to get out more). In contrast, frequently I hear a note of disdain or perhaps bitterness in reference to that one downer in pie-baking. Really, just buy frozen premade crust.

Why am I such an anomaly in the realm of pie-making? It’s one thing to always make your own pie crust, but to even love it …

The secret lies not in my achieving an unfailingly flaky, light pie shell every time, because half the time they’re uncomfortably overbaked, tough, or soggy. It’s not that I can’t wait to sink my teeth into fresh, all-butter pastry, because I awkwardly prefer to eat the filling by itself. It’s not even in some driving hubris to be The Mennonite Domestic, because that’s only part of it. It’s in the source of my first learning how to make pie crust.

My grandma is the one who first walked me through elevating a few basic ingredients into the base of that dessert we all know and love. Even those years ago, her wrinkled hands were not quite dexterous enough and her aged wrists not quite strong enough to roll out the pastry dough into submission, but she pulled her chair up close to our kitchen worktable and talked me through each step.

Grandma’s years of experience negated her needing a recipe to guide her dictation of ingredients I should dump into the bowl. It isn’t meticulous measurements of flour and fat that makes the shell, after all; it’s working with the dough and making the dough work for you. Enough flour, a clump or two of shortening, some cold water (but not too much). She watched me mix, she fingered the crumbs, she helped me adjust it to just right.

As always when I do anything in the kitchen, during this whole process, I made a mess. Flour poofed out as I mixed and patted, ice water sloshed onto the table, sticky flakes of dough sprung off my fingers. My impeccably neat grandmother, tidy to a fault, said nothing as I trashed her standard of housekeeping. Flipping the pastry disc over to continue the rolling process, releasing more white breaths of flour? But no reprimand.

Her wooden rolling pin in my still-practicing hands creaked back and forth, a semi-round shape materializing beneath it. Soon it was big enough for me to carefully fold in half over itself, gingerly place into the awaiting pie plate, reopen to full size, and gently press down. We breathed a collective sigh of relief at successful transfer.

Grandma instructed me to use a butter knife to trim the edges of limp dough hanging lazily over the walls of the pie pan, and to treasure-trove the scraps for baking with cinnamon sugar later. Her fingertips knew exactly what they were doing in ridging the perimeter of the crust, so my thumb and forefingers copied hers as closely as possible as we worked our way around the shell, leaving mismatching teamworked pinches in our wake.

And then we were done. Leaning back, together we smiled our celebration at completion. Sure, flour dusted the front of my shirt, dishes cluttered the table, and dough stuck in my fingernails, but that was all peripheral.

I just learned to make pie crust. Best skill ever.

I don’t even remember what we filled that glorified specimen of a pie shell with that day, but it doesn’t even matter. I’ve modified my method and ingredients since then, always using homemade butter and a pinch of this and that, but it doesn’t matter either.

What matters is that every time I messily cut in that cold butter or capably pinch my way around those pastry edges or cautiously lay those lattice strips over the filling, I remember Grandma. It was just one morning, one baking project together, but it will stick with me for the rest of my life.

Everyone loves pie. But I love pie crust.