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Darlin' Neal


Here are two stories I've heard that stay with me:

When Emily Bronte died her dog, Keeper, followed the procession to the grave and watched her coffin being lowered into the ground. Afterwards he went home and howled in grief outside her chamber door for days.

A group of elephants broke into a building containing the bodies of their clan members, bodies whose parts were being used to make things like jewelry and purses. They carried the remains of their relatives from that place and buried them.

When I put out the call for submissions for this issue, I mentioned Sister Mary Monica Boll of Holly Springs, Mississippi encouraging me to keep a puppy I was searching for a home for by saying, "Well, you'll keep him. After all, they are our companions." 

We were in the Marshall County Literacy Center at the time reading the deeply insightful writing of students who were discovering they had something to say for the first time. Outside the front door of the center you could stand on the porch and see Graceland, Too, just down the block, a little two-story house where a man who'd been obsessed with Elvis for more than forty years lives and gives five-dollar tours. If you take the tour three times, you're a life-time member, and you don't need record of having been there twice before, legend has it he remembers every visitor. Students in the center told me about his family. Some said his wife left him because she couldn't take it anymore. Others said she tried to and was buried somewhere beneath that house. People like to tell the story of how his son, Elvis, told his dad one day he was going to buy milk and never came back home. People felt sorry for that companionless Elvis fanatic. A woman named Leona also worked with me in Holly Springs. I'd go over and teach some classes in the Ida B. Wells Art Gallery which she managed and she'd tell me of the Underground Railroad and passages and I'd imagine hidden doors and tunnels all around as I planned my visit to Graceland, Too, and watched the cats slink around and listened to the dogs barking down the street. I was warned and made the promise and did not visit that house with all the billboards and records on the wall alone. Leona went with me and kept him from dancing his all-shook-up dance too close to either one of us. 

I also kept that puppy I'd found in the middle of the road and though I've lived in six different towns in the nearly six years since, because of him, every single one of them has been home. 

You won't find a four-legged animal in each story that follows in this issue, but you will find that same longing and profound love I see in the story of Keeper and in the story of the African elephants. If the writers here have redefined family they have done so by defining it as being full of secret passages, as being without boundaries, as stretching from critically ill children in Africa to birds nursed back to life and flying away to brilliant teachers leaving indelible impressions to little girls playing Barbie and longing for home to chickens guarding hippie communes and leaning in for a whiff.

I hope you'll hold babies and dogs and cats and partners close in your hearts as you enter these passages. I hope that your family will become a little larger every moment you take on these journeys all over the planet with all these treasured beings.

Darlin' Neal's fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Southern Review, Puerto del Sol, Shenandoah and numerous other magazines. Her collection, Rattlesnakes and the Moon, was a finalist for The G. S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction. She has a completed novel and short story collection looking for homes and she is at work on a memoir. Darlin' Neal teaches creative writing and literature at Clemson University and lives in Greenville, SC with the curator of the Greenville Zoo, her dog, Catfish, and two calicos.

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