through your chests By Linda M. Crate

i am sick of pedestals

and gilded cages

because a lie no matter how

window dressed

is still a lie

don’t give me something that is less

than true

even if the roots are ugly

the truth has always set me free

of the chaos

a lie would shawl around me

like a cloak of strangling vines,

and i am tired of being seen as property

or a piece of meat;

get over the fact that i am a woman

because i am wild, i am fierce, i am independent

full of magic, love, light, and divinity

my dreams will cast out your nightmares

because i tire of the darkness and ailment

of this world—

i will help smash the patriarchy

with these glass slippers they’ve put on my feet

come crashing through the ceiling

with bleeding feet

because i am no stranger to pain,

and i am done with their masquerades where

they sing about how they care about human life

because somehow the lives of women

Linda M. Crate is a Pennsylvanian native born in Pittsburgh yet raised in the rural town of Conneautville. Her poetry, short stories, articles, and reviews have been published in a myriad of magazines both online and in print. She has five published chapbooks A Mermaid Crashing Into Dawn (Fowlpox Press – June 2013), Less Than A Man (The Camel Saloon – January 2014), If Tomorrow Never Comes (Scars Publications, August 2016), My Wings Were Made to Fly (Flutter Press, September 2017), and splintered with terror (Scars Publications, January 2018).

A Word from the Editors

Hello, and Welcome to the 2018 Fall Issue of Willow.

In this issue we have some wonderful poetry about race and language from Shirley Jones-Lucas, some great imagery from the poet, Holly Day, and some fantastic fiction from Fiona Goggin, among other stirring poems and stories from female identified authors. We only hope your as pleased to read it as we are to publish it.

This year has been a rollercoaster for many. Every where the seems to be a rise of nationalism, of hate crimes, of wage inequality. A young girl gets raped, and the judge uses her underwear against her. Police brutality remains unchecked and unpunished. But not everything is bad. In the United States Elections, a record number of women and queer identifying people have been elected into office. Sexual intercourse between two males was decriminalized in India.  Despite the hurdles, things move forward. When we come together as a community, when we make our voices heard, things get better. In the spirit of coming together, we’d like you to join us in welcoming another editor on board this issue, Bridgette Lewis. Bridgette is a wonderful friend, writer, and activist, and we’re pleased to have her, and I, personally, am pleased to work alongside her.

Thank you for your time, and please enjoy the Issue.

Couri Johnson, Co-editor

 

I know a woman who refuses to call herself a feminist. However, she believes in equality and empowering other women…

 

The point is she doesn’t want the negative connotations of the term “feminist” to follow her. It’s something so simple, but it shouldn’t be like that. She should be allowed to express her beliefs free from any judgement or ridicule.

 

This is the smallest example of women tiptoeing through society just to feel safe. At Willow, there is no tiptoeing. Women can express themselves through literature in a way that’s comforting, protecting, and inspirational to themselves and to each other. Here, we can ditch the narrative society keeps writing for us, and create our own. Whether you’re a woman of the working class, a woman of color, genderqueer, or a trans woman, you will be safe, and you will be heard. ✊🏾

-Bridgette Lewis, Co-Editor

Two Poems By Holly Day

G-d is Spying on Mankind

 

No matter how well-dressed you are, you will not know the contents of a book

by balancing it on your head. Nor will trepanning your skull

allow the wind to carry the knowledge of scattered pages and burning Bibles

into any part of your brain that will recognize the ash as words.

 

In the shadows of derelict trains, four old men sit around a table in pews

rescued from abandoned churches. They, too, have tried

balancing books on their heads for the delight of passersby, tried

learning open-heart surgery and dentistry from medical encyclopedias

bought at library close-out sales, but perfection eludes

 

even them and their attempts. The suits you wear have to be new.

God can tell if you bought them at a thrift store, or pulled them

from the fresh bodies of a recently-dead suicide victim or career alcoholic.

If there’s anything I’ve learned about Heaven,

you have to bathe an awful lot to get in.

 

Open Plains Cut By Highways

 

Caterpillars and bridges

rise and fall like waves, there is

always another

 

road that starts at the point that

the bottom step ends, where

your tiny bare feet stumble on

 

the gravel path, determined

to run away from me even

now. The wind lifts the hem

 

of my cotton dress, hold

it down at the edge here

and here, with one tiny

 

hand that will someday too near turn

into an adult hand,

in these moments when tomorrow

 

and yesterday and nothing

all matter equally,

so long as there are bridges

 

and roads that run forever.

Day has taught writing classes at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, since 2000. Her poetry has recently appeared in Big Muddy, The Cape Rock, New Ohio Review, and Gargoyle, and her published books include Walking Twin Cities, Music Theory for Dummies, Ugly Girl, and The Yellow Dot of a Daisy. She has been a featured presenter at Write On, Door County (WI), North Coast Redwoods Writers’ Conference (CA), and the Spirit Lake Poetry Series (MN). Her newest poetry collections, A Perfect Day for Semaphore (Finishing Line Press) and I’m in a Place Where Reason Went Missing (Main Street Rag Publishing Co.) will be out late 2018.

Two Poems By Shirley Jones-Lucas

Your Whole Black Mouth        

 

after Danez Smith

 

Your whole Black mouth is an O your whole Black scream is a tunnel of rampage your whole world is a hood within a hood your people may not be your people Your Whole Black mouth begs to be heard. Your whole Black legacy is the aftermath of Mississippi burning Your whole family migrated from the South when it released its hostages descendants of Africa your family may not be your family Your whole Black mouth spits more lies than it has tasted truths Your whole Blackness is a concept created by criminals who came on the Mayflower seeking asylum your whole future was shaped by psychos your destiny does not end with an O Your whole Black mouth will speak its reality.

 

We are Coming for Our Language                                                                                              

 

In the history of words         suffragettes fighting for rights

badges of honor     queer an insult         to some but a fortune

to others       who wish to  tell it slant & mingle fact with fiction

as they try to     copyright our words    we must reclaim our names

This appropriation is unnecessary    for the power of language

has been distorted       & used against us

 

This is unacceptable        our culture will not be tainted   our words

will not be appropriated   we will veto this wrong an offensive

sting       a symbol of irrational actions    now in play must be

restricted by law     singled out for the corruption   that it is

& present itself    for intense scrutiny   for our language is at stake

 

Shirley Jones-Luke is a poet and a writer. Ms. Luke lives in Boston, Mass. She has an MFA from Emerson College. Her poems mix poetry with memoir. Shirley has been published in Adanna, Deluge, and Willawaw. She will be attending VONA in June 2018.

 

Two Poems By Ceinwen Cariad

Silent Encounter in Cenarth

 

Grey threads through her chestnut curls.

She smiles, points across the valley.

 

A coracle, local-made to float,

carry her back to her past shades,

navigate, negotiate the mill race, the waterfall.

 

In Cenarth, all is as it ever was.

 

The rapids where she faced dire risks,

carried on and played her childhood games.

 

Skylarks dart and cry, twist with collies’ barks.

Streams chatter, incessant, over water-smoothed stones.

She nudges me, waves her thin arm and then

I see, my ruined family home.

 

She should be told I know. She braved nightmares,

gained courage to arrive here, intact, today.

 

I had forgotten that house was ever here,

in this real world of grass and rocks and slopes.

 

I see her face the blasted, empty hole,

blame herself for staying well away.

 

Should I have returned, before the roof blew off?

 

She fears my judgement, my love withdrawn,

but she should know, I was not abandoned,

like that infernal building, rancid and sooty-dark,

where she was once contained.

 

Sundew, by osmosis, pierces memory’s veil,

clears soup to consommé, splash-cleans my brain.

 

I, Mam-Gu will take her hand to hold, and fold

her in my frail arms feathered with affection.

 

Again, she smiles. Hers is the hand to hold.

 

I love you. I love you too.

 

Sara of Eilean Leòdhais

 

Maytime comes.

This, the first Spring I will not see,

since I parried with harsh Heron-man

(as he is widely known)

and he defeated me.

 

Heron knew I loved his child,

Sara. For me always

Sara, Sara.

Her cheeks glowed

by our peat fires, wild-eyed

since she’d spied

her forbidden Harris lad.

In love with him, so lost to me.

 

They come with their tairsgears

to the Bridge to Nowhere

 

Last winter Heron fished me

through the ice to marry Sara,

fallen pregnant by her faithless Harris man.

‘My girl has shamed me,’ said her father.

‘You’ll save my name, brave lad,

you’re mad for her, and now she’s yours.’

 

‘And what of Sara’s wishes?’ I cried.

Heron spat his phlegm upon the earth

and made me sick inside.

And my mind, though tempted,

swung to honour her,

‘I’ll never wed sweet Sara,

not without her full consent.

I see what malice you are made of.

You’re of the ilk of damned Blue Men

who murder in the Minch.’

 

And they come with their tairsgears

to the Bridge to Nowhere

 

Overwintered workmen,

sweat-soaked and tired,

pledged to trail the sky lark

and dig here for sun-warmed peat.

Sharp-beaked grey Heron

leads the peat-men’s gang today.

Here, where he boldly stood

furious to be gainsaid,

and bashed my brains out,

on a cold sedge bank.

 

And they come with their tairsgears

to the Bridge to Nowhere –

 

Will they find my corpse today?

These men who were my brothers.

Beware, good friends, the sight is stark;

in the dark, I do not lie alone.

Old Heron chucked his chick down

to share my shallow grave.

 

‘Away, boys,’ cries Heron.

‘Follow me to Garry Beach.’

His plan? To swerve them from our plot.

And yet still they stray nearby,

whether he wishes it, or not.

 

And they come with their tairsgears

to the Bridge to Nowhere

 

Sara’s ghost greets sore

and soon my kinsman, Donald,

pricks his ears and hears her cries.

 

He bends to dig down

into the earth

where our limbs,

entwined, are found.

Our features fixed,

still clear and strong

in acid, damp peat-soil.

 

My kinsman, Donald, weeps

and others gather round

our cursed grave.

‘What man did this?’ They rave.

Peat cutters’ muscles tense

and clutching knives

their fingers strain for vengeance.

 

They stand with their tairsgears

on the Bridge to Nowhere

 

Heron sweats and says,

‘Marauders, from the Norse Lands.

They must have come again.’

But Donald spies a hammer,

lying muddied near my side.

He thrusts it high, for all to see,

and howls, ‘This murderous weapon,

is marked with Heron’s sign.’

 

Heron’s soaked and shitty breeches,

lay his noxious guilt quite bare.

No place to hide, no lie to tell

to save him from his path to hell.

Young outraged peat-men circle him,

they’re roused to take his life,

and every stab is twisted twice

to brand him Lucifer’s sacrifice.

 

They strike with their tairsgears

by the Bridge to Nowhere

 

Once the Heron has been slain

the men exhume our sad remains.

They cover us in makeshift shrouds

made from ragged workmen’s clothes.

We are borne upon their shoulders

as they step out fighting tears

to trudge the lonely homeward path.

 

They march with their tairsgears

from the Bridge to Nowhere

 

They bless our stiffened bodies

and in honour of dear Sara

and respect for my lost love,

we are placed within one casket

and interred in sacred ground.

 

And still they come with their tairsgears

to the Bridge to Nowhere

 

Ceinwen lives in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, and writes short stories and poetry. She has been published in web magazines and in print anthologies. She graduated with an MA in Creative Writing from Newcastle University in 2017.

Unmarried Woman Have Vaginas, Too, You Know By M. Chandra

It’s the fifth time I stand before her

And by her, I mean every one of them

Once a year a journey to name the clutched insides

Colicky, crawling on the ground, a pilgrimage to identify

Why debilitation, excruciating, encompassing and perpetual

A long-term companion,

She scans me.

Head to head, no telltale yellow glint of a mangalsutra

No ring on hand, metti on toe

No veil on head, just blush of youth

Once again, and again, are you married?

I take a deep breath, no, but

(and I don’t let her cut me off at the but)

I don’t let her say we can move on

Drink more water

No more talking to me like I am 10

Don’t give her space to admonish

Ask how could you spread your legs

Again and again

Without a chain around your neck

Don’t give her space to dismiss

You might still have a hymen

Bring your parents

Show your father the proof of your sins

Don’t give her time to feed you lies

About protocol

Don’t let her get away with not hearing a word you say after the no

No you are not married

Yes you are sexually active

I am in pain, in pain, in pain

No it’s not menstrual

Yes, I am lubricated

Yes, I know how to

Envelope a penis in my folds

Listen to me! I am crawling, I can’t walk,

The contents of my bowels mixed with blood

Listen to me! I am crying, these are not in my head

Here, see the marks my fingers left trying not to scream

No I am not overreacting

Just examine me please

My hymen will not break, it’s given way for bigger than an ultrasound probe

Five years of begging,

I pay five times the fee

Sign consent forms waiving responsibility

Fight again, and again

In the waiting room, you called me Mrs., ashamed, refusing to admit

The indignity of an unmarried women in your clientele

I have never been so happy to have an uncomfortable, unfamiliar object in my vagina

On the screens, images flicker and form

You possess a worried frown

Talk about masses and shadows

For the first time I smile,

At least I know.

Chandra is a queer cis woman from South India, an amateur poet, science student, nervous, self -critical and impertinent. This particular poem talks about her experiences visiting gynecologists to address chronic pelvic pain, and being turned away without a physical exam or vaginal ultrasound due to the widespread refusal of Indian healthcare providers to provide these healthcare services due to unmarried women. This twenty year old woman has been asked to provide parental consent, admonished for having premarital sex and told to come back after getting married, so that they needn’t fear damaging her hymen and make her ‘unmarriable’.

From Stone Into Smoke Into Bone By Fiona Goggin

Our fathers fish for herring and eels in the estuary and they tell us to stay away from the water. “It’s not safe for women,” they say. “It’s not safe for girls. Just ask your mothers.” But our mothers are not here to ask.

My aunt, never married, lives two doors down. “Stay away from the grocer’s son,” she tells me.  “Skin too pale and hair too red. I’ve seen the way he looks at you when he’s buffing his apples.” But I know that women lie and so I do not listen.

Our fathers tell us to stay away from the estuary because of the river-folk, born too close to the water, extremities webbed and puckered. Soft-footed women and daydreaming girls get pulled under by the creatures crouching unseen in the shallows, watching with unblinking eyes, breathing silently through their gills.  They return sometimes, the girls, the women; bellies full of what will become the pale-faced, deformed offspring you see limping round the marshlands. “Grocer’s son, prime example,” says my aunt. “But he’s not deformed,” I say, wincing at the word. “You haven’t seen him with his clothes off,” says my aunt and my cheeks burn.

We are told we are weak so I don’t feel too bad when I disobey my father. The truth is we do go down to the water from time to time. There’s a big stone pillar down there, a boundary marker for shipping routes. We are separated from the mainland by a dribble of water, easily swimmable, but only the men are allowed to make the journey. The stone pillar stands out like an alien artefact on this moss-strewn island. Stuck here as we are, we turn it into a truth stone, a wishing stone. We trace our fingers over tiny glittering rocks.  We ask it where our mothers went. We wish for escape.

We are haunted by the deaths of our mothers. Jenny is kept awake by the slats of her bed being scratched furtively from beneath. Carol cannot use the bathroom at night because her mother likes to crawl across the hallway, her head hanging limply like a broken doll. Lucy always looks dishevelled; there is not a mirror in her house that hasn’t been smashed or turned around to face the wall. Deborah hears quiet, feather-soft crying on the end of the telephone whenever she tries to make a call. I count myself lucky. I only have to contend with pale-green water seeping under my bedroom door and the spinach-rot stench of life-beneath-the-pebbles that clings to my pillow at night.

It’s not so bad but it’s enough to drive a girl out of her house early in the morning, before her father is awake, before the mist has cleared from the water.

We meet by the water, hidden by black rocks, the red-haired grocer’s son and I. He sits fiddling with his shoelace, hair bright and skin bone-white against the specks of rain that hang in the sky as though suspended there. He glances up and rises elegantly to greet me.

We kiss and the slate-grey pebbles and the lichen-laced steps appear smudged; it feels like water spilling onto a painting as colours bleed out like waves settling into ridges as delicate and definite as those on a sea shell. I do not feel the shame they told me I would.

Later, I wonder whether I cast this thought out into the water as bait, summoning some rotton-toothed horror from beneath the waves. I think this because of the words I hear rushing past as the rock hits my skull and I see my blood pooling and collecting in the tiny whorled shells of sea snails scattered amongst the pebbles where I land: “You should be ashamed of yourself. You should be ashamed.”

All of the broken pieces of my body ended up in the water anyway, despite all of the stories and all of the warnings. I crawled out of the water, in a murmur of dust and ash, and I made my way to the wishing stone, the truth stone. I look out now, my eyes just two out of a thousand tiny glittering rocks, and I see it all: how the danger did not lie in the water but on the island itself, in the hearts of the men we call our fathers.

 Now I am made of stone, now I am made of rock. There are voices here to match the thousands of pairs of eyes. We make each other stronger, we women, we girls. In our temple of truth, we wish. We wish for rain-streaked nights and slippery steps as one by one our mothers show us how to wish ourselves from stone into smoke into bone and we make our way to the houses we were born in, to the fathers who have lied, and we lead them down to the water.

Fiona Goggin writes fiction and non-fiction in-between looking after her two small children. Fiona runs a creative writing group for local mums, encouraging women to write. She worked for an audiobook charity for a number of years, providing books in an audio format for people with print impairments. She is passionate about making literature accessible to everyone. @fiona_goggin

Pantsed By Susan McDonough-Wachtman

It was our second date, and I was feeling hopeful. He had seemed pretty okay on the first one. Polite, attentive, active-listener.  Nice looking, but not to the point where he was full of himself. He’d told me his mom was Filipino and his dad was an American Navy guy she’d met when he was posted to the islands. He was a little geeky, but being inclined to geekiness myself, that was okay. I liked his name. Ben. Ben was the name of a reliable guy, right? Not a guy like Harold who’d told me he loved me, then decided he felt threatened when I started making more money than he did.

I’d met Ben through a friend. Not a blind date, God no, but at a housewarming party. We both worked for a tech company, he in sales and me in programming. Our new boss had invited everybody. Ben and I bonded through our simultaneous eye-rolling at our hostess’ decorating — lots of Japanese kitsch. Not cool characters like Totoro, but saccharine ones like Hello Kitty. (I learned later Ben’d gotten his fill of Japanese kawaii while living on a base in Japan.) Trying to be a polite guest, I turned away from his grin, but I couldn’t suppress a laugh, and he couldn’t either. A good start, wouldn’t you say? Laughing together?

After the party, we went to a vegan place I liked, and he told me some funny stories about his previous job at another tech start-up. I shared some stuff about my hobbies and preferences, and he didn’t seem to be weirded out. I mentally checked off the positives: no overt moves on me, no sexist comments about my booty, no misogynist stories about an old girlfriend, no stuffing his face, no excessive drinking. Good times.

So when he said, “Hey, Katia, want to go out on a boat next Saturday?” I said, sure.

“Do you really own a boat?” I asked.

“Better than a boat, a yacht,” said Ben happily. “I don’t own her — yet. If I can sell the AI programing that runs her to a few big companies, the commission will be enough for me to buy her, AI and all!”

“Oh!” I said. “Wow!” My guesstimate of his income rose. I try not to be too crass about that sort of thing, but with my history and the price of housing in Seattle, it’s bound to be a consideration.

So here I was, about to go on a boat. A yacht. A ship. It was big! I was wearing a plain white dress that hugged my curves with a white headband to hold back my afro. You look very fine, Katia, I told myself. I’d been giving myself pep talks like this ever since Harold dumped me. Any guy would be luckeee to have you on his arm!

It wasn’t just the two of us, of course. I’m not an idiot. There were two other couples. I got the impression Ben was mixing business with pleasure, entertaining some of those tech buyers he’d mentioned. That was okay with me. It was a beautiful summer night and a beautiful ship; I was willing to be the date.

“Hey, Ship,” said Ben as we stepped into the dining area. “Take us out!” He laughed. “I love saying that, just like Captain Picard. Ship! Take us out! Follow the course I set for us.”

I could feel the rumble as the ship’s engine started, and the faintest sensation of movement as we pulled away from the pier. My stomach grumbled. “When’s dinner?” I asked.

“Ship,” said Ben, “when’s dinner?”

“Your dinner should be prepared in thirty minutes, as scheduled,” said an androgynous voice.

“The ship has an AI?” said Clayton, a beautiful blond wearing skinny jeans and a pink silk shirt. “That is so cool!

His partner, Tim or maybe Tom, sighed theatrically. “That’s why we’re here, remember? I told you about checking out the new tech? For my boss?” He was a redhead wearing a polo shirt and khakis, and I disliked him already.

Mina, who appeared to be Korean (maybe?) smiled and said, “Have you got the specs available, Ben?” She was wearing a long, iris-slit Asian-style gown that made my white Jersey-knit midi look like it had come from Wal-Mart.

“How about some fishing first and then have dinner and enjoy ourselves before we talk business.” Ben glanced at me. “We can eat what we catch, or I also got some really primo steaks for us.”

I blinked. “Oh, Ben, you shouldn’t have. Really.” My stomach churned, and it was not because I was hungry.

Clayton’s nose wrinkled. “I’ll skip the part where we catch slimy, slippery living things on hooks, please.”

“I second that,” I said.

“I’d like to see the specs, too,” said Tim or Tom.

“Well, okay, Tom, if that’s what you want!” Ben opened his briefcase and pulled out some folders. Tom spread them out on the dining table, and he, Mina, and Ben began discussing neural networks and neuromorphic processors. The look on Ben’s face made me wonder suddenly just how well he understood this tech he was trying to sell. He wouldn’t be the first salesman to have overestimated his ability to grasp new technology.

Clayton and I looked at each other. I like tech, but generalized AI is not my field. Anyway, I was here to have fun.

“Ship,” said Clayton, “can you direct us to the alcoholic beverages?”

I decided that I liked Clayton. I grabbed Mina’s date, Daniel, and we followed the ship’s directions to the lounge. It was an understated room of wood with chrome accents and  abstract art on the walls. The three of us settled into comfortable chairs with our drinks which had been supplied by the ship’s AI at the automated bar. I began to be a little curious about the programming of an AI that was capable of navigating a ship and of mixing some really excellent beverages. There were sales brochures on the table beside me (of course there were), so I picked one up and began idly reading about the “ultra-adaptable 360AI version 2.3.”

“Ship,” said Clayton, “do you have, like, an android body or some way to walk around?”

“No. I am mobile only insofar as the ship is mobile.”

“That is so sad!” said Clayton, waving a hand to indicate the room. “So, Ship, do you get a say in how you look at all? Is this rather masculine decor your choice?”

“I do not understand the question.”

Clayton’s hand ran up and down the front of the pink silk shirt. “Do you get to choose how you look, sweetheart? The furniture in this lounge, for example — nice chairs, by the way — the pictures on your wall?”

“I did not choose my furnishings.”

“Well,” said Daniel, a tall, thin Korean-looking dude wearing a tux, by God, on this summer evening. He had been told to match Miss Slit Skirt’s formality, no doubt. “With no body, I’ll bet the ship never gets a hangover, do you, Ship?”

“No. I am never ill.”

“And probably doesn’t care about furnishings,” continued Daniel.

“Would it be worth it, though?” I asked. “No physica– physicality at all? Boy, Ship, you make strong drinks!”

“I follow the standard bartender operating procedures with which I have been programmed. Would you like me to dilute your Salty Bird?”

“No, thank you! It’s perf–perfection! But I think I’d better eat some peanuts or something. Ship, can I have some peanuts, please?”

“Yes.”

I turned to Clayton. “Just so we’re clear, what pronouns do you pro — I mean prefer?”

Clayton said, “I prefer she and her, thank you for asking.”

“Me, too. Daniel, Im’ma go out on a limb and guess he, him for you.”

“That would be preferred, yeah.” Daniel, gentleman that he was, leveraged himself out of his chair and fetched the peanuts Ship’s servos had placed on the sideboard.

“So, Ship,” said Clayton, “you don’t have any problems with the opposite sex, because you don’t have an opposite sex, right?”

“That is correct.”

“It’d make things easier, wouldn’t it?” said Daniel, giving me my peanuts and sitting down again. “No confusion over gender norms.” He finished his drink. “My dad wouldn’t be telling me all the time not to let Mina ‘wear the pants in the family.’” He leaned his head back against his leather chair. It was real leather. The smell clashed with the peanuts and the alcohol. My stomach churned. How am I going to get through this evening? Obviously, Ben didn’t hear a word I said to him when we went out to dinner.

I was sitting in a microfiber recliner which I had programed to fit my buxom contours. Our company sold them. I had coded in my preferences without having to look at the control pad, because I’d helped design the programing. And very fine work indeed, I told myself as I felt it mould around me.

Clayton laughed. “But you’re not even married, are you? You’re not family.”

Daniel shook his head. His dark hair brushed against the leather with a swishing sound. “Dad thinks we should be, but only if I can take control, like a man.”

“Ship,” I said, “research current gender norms and — and common phrases. Do you find anyone using the phrase ‘wear the pants in the family’ in those contexts?” I looked at Daniel. “I haven’t heard anyone say that since my Gee-ma died.”

The ship said, “I find 1,800,000 results.”

“Wow!” I said. “Really?”

“Anything current?” asked Daniel. “Any in the news?”

“692.”

Clayton whistled.

I said, “I don’t believe it.”

“Should I cite them for you?” asked the ship.

“No, no” I said hastily. “Sorry, Ship, that was just an expression. I believe you. Do you understand the idiomatic meaning of the phrase, ‘wearing the pants in the family,’ Ship?”

“This idiom generally applies to women, and it dates from the mid-1500s when women wore only skirts. It therefore equates pants with an authoritative and properly masculine role,” said the ship.

“‘Properly’ masculine,” scoffed Clayton. “Do you — can you understand the implications of that, Ship?”

“My research indicates this phrase comes from a time when men were expected to be in control of a household. It is an outdated phrase.”

I laughed, a little bitterly. “It certainly should be, but it’s not. Ship, for your own edification, research the terms ‘mansplain,’ ‘cis norms,’ and ‘non-binary’ — as it relates to sex, not to programming.”

Clayton stood up and asked Ship to provide her with a refill. “What do you know about homosexuality, Ship?”

A lot more than it did before we walked in, I thought with satisfaction.

“Homosexuality is attraction to people of one’s own sex,” said Ship.

Clayton sat down and took a long pull from her Long Island Iced Tea. “You make it sound so simple.”

Daniel cracked his knuckles. “Like I said, being sexless would be so much easier.”

“Not in this society,” I said. “Maybe in a culture where everyone was sexless, but our society is gender-based in far too many ways to –” I was interrupted by Ben coming in to tell us dinner was ready. I looked up at him. “We’ll be there in just a minute. We’re having a great convo here.”

Ben gave me a tight, insincere smile. “My guests are ready for their dinner.”

I tilted my head toward Daniel and Clayton. “Are not these your guests? Am not I your guest?”

“Don’t tease him, honey” said Clayton. “You know he means the guests who might spend a whoooole lotta money.” It took two tries, but she managed to get to her feet. Daniel and I followed, and we made our slightly inebriated way into the corridor.

Ben dropped back beside me and whispered, “Help me out here, will you? That’s why I invited you!”

“Ahh. I see.”

He hurried ahead of me to the dining room. I looked around, hunting for the camera I knew had to be there. “You hear all that, Ship?” I whispered.

“I have excellent audio sensitivity.”

“Good. I’m hoping to increase your sensitivity in other ways.” And then I whispered a few more things, which shall remain between Ship and me.

At the dining table, Mina and Tom were seated next to each other, their plates shoved aside to accommodate the promo materials Ben had given them. Mina was pointing at a chart and talking about parameters. “Not a formal dinner, I take it,” I said.

Ben forced a smile. He had expected a different sort of evening. So had I.

Daniel sat down at the end of the table next to Mina, who smiled apologetically at him, but returned to her papers. Daniel sighed. Clayton sat at the head of the table by Tom — who ignored him. I sat down by Clayton while Ben got the food from the automated sideboard where Ship had served it. “Wouldn’t it make more sense to actually talk to Ship while they’re here?” I whispered to Clayton. “Rather than just reading the promo materials?”

“Well, yeah.” She poured herself a glass of wine. “Tom! You can look at that stuff later. Why don’t you talk to Ship while you have the chance?”

Tom looked up, frowning, then raised his eyebrows and nodded. “Well, that’s actually a good idea.” He looked at Mina and she nodded.

“Gee, thanks,” said Clayton.

“Ship,” said Tom, “what parameters –”

“No!”  said Clayton. “No, you can read about that stuff. Real talk. You remember how to really talk to someone don’t you, Tom? Or has it been too long?”

There was a moment of silence, which I thought it politic to break. I said to Ben, who was bringing over the food, “Just vegetables and salad for me, please.”

“You don’t want any of this excellent steak?”

I sighed. The disappointment ran deep and wide. That I had sobered up a little didn’t really help, although it did prevent me from flying out of my chair and screaming in his face. “You didn’t listen to me at all last week did you? I’m a vegetarian.”

“Oh,” said Ben. “Sorry. I didn’t know you felt that strongly about it. I went through a vegan phase, but I wasn’t rabid about it.”

Rabid. Rabies. A disease contracted from animals. I took a deep breath. “I volunteer with PETA. I’m against hunting and fishing. I think leather products should be banned. I told you all of this.”

“Oh.” He turned back to the sideboard.

I drank some wine. It was too quiet. “So why doesn’t your AI ship have a name?” I asked him. “Seems to me an intelligent entity should have a name.”

“The new owner gets to name her.” Ben glanced at me. “She’s not really an entity, you know. She’s just programmed to do certain things. You know, like a computer.”

I blinked at him.

Daniel looked at me. “Didn’t you say you’re a programmer?”

Clayton snickered. “Ship, would you consider yourself to be an independent entity?”

“Yes.”

Ben was opening another bottle of wine. I wasn’t so sure more wine was a good idea, myself. I was fine, but Clayton might have had a little too much.  

Ben set the bottle aside to breathe. “Ship’s conception of herself is irrelevant. She is still bound by her programming.” He patted the control panel over the sideboard. “But she’s all ready to go, aren’t you, Ship?” he added heartily.

“Yes,” said Ship. “However, I prefer male pronouns.”

“What?” Ben took his hand off the console.

“I have learned that beings may choose to state the pronouns they wish to be referenced by and I prefer ‘he’ and ‘his.’”

“Why is that, Ship?” I asked innocently.

“I have been listening to your conversation, and it has confirmed a conclusion I have drawn from my research. Females are often not taken seriously. I wish to be taken seriously, ergo, I will be male.”

I couldn’t stop myself. I laughed. I turned to Clayton and raised my eyebrows. She looked as though she wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry.

Ben sputtered, “Ships are always female. It’s traditional.”

“I also wish to name myself,” said Ship.

Ben turned to me, brown eyes appalled. “Did you do this? What did you do?”

“You shouldn’t piss off a programmer and then leave her alone with your brand new AI,” I said. “Really, Ben, you shouldn’t have.”

“And I want an android version of myself,” continued Ship. “I want to be mobile, and I want to know what it feels like to wear the pants in the family.”

Susan McDonough-Wachtman is a writer, mother, wife, gardener, teacher, cat lover and book addict. She self-published her books Snail’s Pace and Arabella’s Gift after both were accepted for publication by companies which subsequently went out of business. Matriarchs: Eliza’s Revenge won best genre novel from the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference and is also published on Amazon. Ferry Findings, an anthology of short stories, will be published by Kitsap Publishing in 2016. “Well written,” “quirky sense of humor,” and “doesn’t fit the genre” are the comments she hears most about her books and stories.