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Dark Ocean

Feeling Trapped
& Imprisoned

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Table of Contents


“Not the Slightest Inclination”

Fiction by Penny Harper

  • Art by Sawyer


Poem by Taylor Woodworth

  • Art by Morgan Belden


Poem by Sydney Ross

  • Art by Miriam Ridout

“No Welcome Wagon”

Poem by Luka Russo

  • Art by Morgan Belden

“The Eulogy of a Taxidermied Elk Skull”

Poem by Stephanie Thomson

  • Art by David Hurley

“The Stone Pig”

Poem by Casey Elder

  • Art by Casey Elder


Not the Slightest Inclination

By Penny Harper


        Anna Margareta Buxtehude glanced nervously out the window of the sitting room as she straightened the cushions on the chairs. Her family was expecting two guests from Hamburg, and her mother had ordered her to make sure the sitting room was ready. While she inspected the shelves for dust, Anna Margareta listened intently for signs of the guests’ arrival. 

        Soon enough, she heard carriage wheels on the cobblestones below and flew to the window to watch.

        “Are they here?” Anna Margareta’s younger sisters Catrin and Sophia piled into the sitting room, their eyes bright with curiosity. Anna Margareta moved over to make room at the window, and all three girls watched the carriage enter the courtyard and draw to a halt. “Behold! Your bridegroom approaches!” teased Catrin. Anna Margareta blushed furiously but her eyes stayed fixed on the scene below.

        Anna Margareta’s father Dieterich Buxtehude, a portly man in his late 60s, was waiting in the courtyard to greet their guests. A slim young man alighted from the carriage with a grimace, turned to Buxtehude and made an elaborate bow.

        “Johann Mattheson at your service, sir!” Buxtehude returned the bow with tolerant amusement. 

        A slightly younger, fairer man descended from the carriage beside Mattheson and also saluted Buxtehude, saying stiffly “Georg Händel. It’s an honor to make your acquaintance, Herr Buxtehude.” 

        Buxtehude surveyed both young men genially. “You are both very welcome!” He waved his hand at the imposing cathedral behind them, whose twin spires rose far into the sky. “I am looking forward to showing you what St. Mary’s has to offer and to hear what you will make of her organ. Come in, come in! You must need refreshment after your journey.” 

        As the three men crossed the courtyard, Anna Margareta and her sisters retreated from the sitting room into the kitchen. They heard their mother greet the guests and usher them into the sitting room. “Welcome! Please, come and sit down -- my daughter is bringing coffee!”


        This was the moment that Anna Margareta had been dreading. She knew that her father was actively seeking the man who would succeed him as music director and organist at St. Mary’s, and she knew that both Mattheson and Händel, who were making names for themselves in the Hamburg Opera, were candidates. But she also knew what they did not: fearing for the future of his wife and their three unmarried daughters, and in accordance with guild custom, her father had determined that whoever inherited his position must also marry Anna Margareta, his eldest daughter.

        Other organists had applied for the position, but none of them had met her father’s expectations. Anna Margareta had not overly concerned herself with the matter at first. As her father’s amanuensis and assistant organ technician, she had learned patience with his ways: when the right candidate appeared, he would know it. She trusted her father’s judgment and she was in no hurry to marry in any case.

        Anna Margareta’s mother was less patient: her younger daughters Catrin and Sophia could not marry until Anna Margareta married and Mother was anxious to get them all settled. Catrin, who was engaged to a church organist in a nearby town, was philosophical about the delay; Sophia was more critical and seemed to blame Anna Margareta for the constraint of the marriage condition even though it was hardly her fault.  

        In the kitchen, as Sophia finished loading the coffee tray, Catrin regarded Anna Margareta critically, smoothing her hair and straightening her collar. “There, you look very nice,” she said. “Now go and charm those young men. One of them is bound to win!”

        Anna Margareta carried the tray into the sitting room. Her father was showing the visitors a portrait of his friend Johann Reincken, whom both young men knew as the organist at St. Katherine’s in Hamburg, but as she entered he turned to her. “Ah, there you are! Gentlemen, may I present my eldest daughter Anna Margareta? Grete, this is Johann Mattheson and Georg Händel.” Both men rose and nodded to her; Anna Margareta shyly lowered her eyes as she crossed to the coffee table. She hoped she would not have to speak; a stutter often overcame her when she was nervous, which made conversation painfully difficult. 

        As she poured the coffee, Anna Margareta was grateful to see that the young men seemed already to have forgotten her and were concentrating on her father. She took the opportunity to observe them more closely. 

        Mattheson was the elder by a few years. Dark and slight, he had a restless gaze and an air of discontent. Anna Margareta watched his eyes dart around the room as if he were calculating the value of its contents. As she handed him his cup she wondered whether his restless eyes had already measured and dismissed her as well; he seemed to be skeptical about whether this opportunity was worth his time.

        Händel was younger – Anna Margareta guessed no older than 18 – and less confident than his friend. He seemed very aware of his purple velvet jacket, tugging at the cuffs and occasionally brushing a lapel. Perhaps the jacket was new, Anna Margareta thought, bought specifically to impress her father. Which amused her because clothing was the last thing that would enter her father’s mind when evaluating a candidate for the organist position. Unless the jacket somehow interfered with Händel’s organ playing, Father would never notice. He looked up at Anna Margareta and smiled as she passed him his cup.

        “How are things at the Opera?” Buxtehude asked. “Are you doing anything new?”

        Mattheson spoke first. “I’m writing an opera based on Shakespeare’s ‘Antony and Cleopatra,’ which I hope will be performed next year. So many fine arias for the soprano!  Magnificent.” As he went on, Anna Margareta saw her parents share a glint of amusement at the young man’s confidence.

        “And you, Herr Händel?” Buxtehude inquired.

         “Oh, I am also writing an opera about Almira, the Queen of Castile. A courtly drama, nothing as exciting as Marc Anthony, but I hope it will find favor.”

        Buxtehude nodded. “We have no opera house here in Lübeck, but there are always opportunities for new liturgical compositions. Perhaps you would find this dull by comparison?”

        Mattheson seemed to be considering this question, but Händel spoke up right away. “Not at all, Herr Buxtehude! How could such glorious music be dull?”

        “Yes, of course.” Beneath his genial manner, Buxtehude was studying the two young men carefully. He would never reach a final judgment until he had heard them play, but he was an experienced leader of musicians and well understood how their personalities could affect their performance. He would have their measure soon enough, thought Anna Margareta. 

        Finally, Buxtehude clapped his hands together and rose. “Come! If you’re ready, I’m anxious to introduce you to St. Mary’s.” 

        Mattheson and Händel made their courtesies to Anna Margareta and her mother before following Buxtehude out.

        “Well?” Anna Margareta’s mother watched her gather up the coffee service; Anna Margareta kept her eyes down. She knew how anxious her mother was to settle the question of Anna Margareta’s marriage, and that she considered both visitors to be highly desirable prospects. Mother herself had lived in St. Mary’s all her life; her father, Franz Tunder, had been Buxtehude’s predecessor, and Tunder had also required Buxtehude to marry his eldest daughter as a condition of inheriting his position. By and large the Buxtehudes’ marriage had been a happy one and Mother could not understand Anna Margareta’s reluctance to follow her example.  

        “Mattheson seems to think very well of himself!” Anna Margareta thumped the cups onto the tray, earning a grimace from her mother. “Händel could hardly get a word in.” But even as she spoke Anna Margareta was considering what she’d seen in Händel’s face. After a moment, she realized what it was: Händel’s distracted and inwardly-focused aspect reminded her of her father. 

        Mother pursed her lips. “If your father thinks they are suitable, that’s the end of it. I expect you to look your best at dinner tonight – we must show them how charming you can be. Now finish clearing up.”


        Charming! Anna Margareta thought resentfully. Surely the visitors would be charmed by pretty Catrin and lively Sophia long before they even noticed plain Anna Margareta – it was awfully hard to be charming when your fear of stuttering kept you in silence. And even if she could speak, what would she say? 

        At home, Anna Margareta and her father could talk easily about music and musicians; he often praised her acute ear and laughed heartily at some of her observations of what the church musicians did when he couldn’t see them. Anna Margareta loved the organ and under her father’s tutelage had become very competent at repairs and maintenance. Perhaps that was too practical to be charming, but it was interesting – wasn’t it?

        Anna Margareta considered what might be going on in the church at that moment. No doubt her father was in his element, showing off the church’s grand organ to the two visitors and enumerating its dozens of stops and thousands of pipes. He could go on at great length about the acoustics of the church and how the largest 32-foot pipes could make a congregant’s bones vibrate in his body. There was more than one way to communicate God’s power, he would say!

        But then each young man would take his turn at the organ console. Each would have prepared a piece to try to impress Buxtehude, and Anna Margareta badly wanted to be there to hear for herself what compositions they chose and how well they played.

        Anna Margareta also wanted to gauge her father’s response to the auditions. Whether Händel and Mattheson knew it or not, Buxtehude would hear every nuance of their performance and would understand precisely what they were capable of; he would also be highly sensitive to how much reverence they expressed in their music. If Buxtehude doubted their priorities – if he thought they were placing personal ambition over the glory of God – they would never succeed him at St. Mary’s regardless of their musical ability. 

        But how was Anna Margareta to hear the auditions? They were none of her business as far as her mother was concerned. Despite a lifetime spent in St. Mary’s, church music didn’t move her mother; managing it was the family business and she did her part well, but she was indifferent to its quality and never understood Anna Margareta’s interest in the organ. Let the men worry about it, she would say: we have a house to keep!

         Anna Margareta found her sisters upstairs and quietly confided her dilemma. “I must go over to the church to hear them play, but you know Mother won’t allow me.” 

        “Why do you care?” snipped Sophia. “You’ll have to marry one of them anyway!”

        Catrin eyed Anna Margareta consideringly, then smiled. “Yes, I see. I fell in love with Caspar when I heard him play.” Then she narrowed her eyes at Sophia and added, “Whatever it takes, we’ll do.” 

        A few minutes later, Anna Margareta stood in the hallway until she heard Catrin crying from the kitchen: “Mother! The herring has gone bad! Come see!” and then quietly opened the front door.

        Anna Margareta slipped into the church and found a place out of sight in one of the side chapels. She arrived just in time to overhear her father inviting Mattheson to take his place at the console. After a long series of warnings about some of the organ’s weaknesses (“the Rückpositiv, alas, has not the power it should have”), Buxtehude retired from the organ loft and sat near the front of the church where he could hear the organ most clearly. 

        After briefly testing the keyboards and pedals, Mattheson launched into one of her father’s own Preludes. Though it was obviously intended as flattery, Anna Margareta had to admit that Mattheson’s choice of this particular composition was deft: she knew how much its prominent pedal work, unique to North Germany, would please Father’s ear. She wished she could see his face: no doubt he understood the compliment, but did he also understand the calculation? Of course he would: Buxtehude’s living depended on the wealthy burgers of the town and he was hardly ignorant of the necessity of pleasing people in positions of power. 

        Mattheson played well, if a little showily, Anna Margareta thought. When the piece was finished, Buxtehude cried “Well done, sir!” in the direction of the organ loft. “You carried that with great skill! Now, Herr Händel, what do you have for me?”

        A long silence followed. Anna Margareta, still concealed in the chapel, began to feel anxious. But when the music finally began, her anxiety dissolved in a moment. 

        Father’s compositions were often solemn, and Händel’s composition started somewhat solemnly, even tentatively. Notes in the organ’s upper range emerged into the silence of the church; Anna Margareta was drawn along the complex chain of melody and counterpoint in a way that felt deeply familiar. But the piece grew in intensity as Händel seemed to gain confidence; before long, Anna Margareta was so overwhelmed that she had to sit down quickly.

        The composition – certainly one of Händel’s own – pulled in more and more of the grand organ’s stops until the music reverberated powerfully through the entire cathedral. To Anna Margareta’s ear it spoke not only of power, but also of gratitude for the glory of creation. In contrast to Mattheson’s showy and mannered playing, Händel held back nothing: his passion and skill were exalting. If Father wanted a successor who had surrendered his soul, who understood entirely that his efforts were for the glory of God, surely he had found his man.

        Anna Margareta could hear no more; she crept out of the church, her heart pounding and her head spinning. What was to be done? If Händel wanted the job, it was his. Could she bear it?


        Back at the apartment, Mother stood forbiddingly in the doorway. “Where have you been?” she demanded. Mother was fiercely protective of her family’s reputation among the burgers of Lübeck and made sure she knew exactly what her daughters were doing at all times, especially now, when the marriage prospects of all three girls were constantly in her mind.

        “Checking to be sure Father didn’t need anything,” Anna Margareta lied. 

        Her mother’s furious scowl showed what she thought of that excuse. “Your father can take care of himself, Grete. I need you here, and you need to get ready for supper. Now go!” Anna Margareta fled upstairs.

        Her sisters were fluttering about the room putting the finishing touches on their own toilettes. “Grete, you look awful!” remarked Sophia with satisfaction. “Mother is in a temper and you’d better get dressed.” 

        Catrin studied Anna Margareta as she crossed to the clothes press to take out her good dress. “What did you think? Did Father like them?” Anna Margareta was still too shaken to answer; she stared helplessly at her reflection in the mirror and wondered how she was going to get through the next few hours. How could she try to charm the two young men from Hamburg? Did she even want to? 

        “Here, let me help you,” Catrin offered kindly. She untied Anna Margareta’s hair and gently drew the brush through it. “You wear it pulled back so tightly! Let’s leave it down, it is very becoming that way.” 

Sophia snorted, and Anna Margareta felt ashamed and confused. Didn’t she want to look well? She felt a bit like a prize cow at the town fair, fussed over, brushed and shined for the occasion. It felt unnatural, but it was clear that if she was a prize cow, she was meant to win the ribbon whether she wanted to or not.  


        A burst of masculine laughter at the front door signaled the return of Buxtehude and the guests. Buxtehude was jovial; apparently the auditions had been passed, and all that remained was the negotiation of terms. But first, supper! 

        Anna Margareta found herself seated by Händel. Mattheson sat across the table, and she noticed that his gaze turned on her as often as it did on Sophia, who chattered beside him, or Catrin, who sparkled on Händel’s other side. Had some whisper of the marriage condition reached Mattheson’s ears already? He was punctiliously polite, but there was no warmth in his eyes, and Anna Margareta shuddered inwardly and hoped that he returned to Hamburg quickly.

        Händel seemed to have lost his reticence.  “Frau Buxtehude, what a lovely meal! We don’t get fish like these in Hamburg.” Anna Margareta’s mother smiled deprecatingly, but Anna Margareta could tell she was pleased.  “Herr Buxtehude, can you tell me more about the Evening Music concerts? How did they start?”

        Father’s eyes twinkled. “Best ask Frau Buxtehude that question – they were started by her father Franz Tunder, who had this position before me!”

        Anna Margareta listened closely to the conversations at the table, and tried a few times to work up her courage to join in, but the subject always turned before she could form the words in her mouth. Once she thought Händel might have waited to hear her speak, but when Mattheson laughed loudly at some remark of Sophia’s, his attention turned away, and Anna Margareta did not know whether she was glad or sorry.


        After supper, the men repaired to Buxtehude’s study while the girls and their mother cleared away the dishes. Anna Margareta’s sisters gossiped about the two visitors. “Herr Mattheson is so handsome!” Sophia gushed. “Those dark eyes – so romantic!” Then, mischievously, “Don’t you think he is handsome, Grete? He could hardly keep his eyes off you!”

        “I quite like Herr Händel,” Catrin said quickly. “He spoke with good sense, at least when Herr Mattheson’s attention was elsewhere. Mother? What did you think?”

        “Herr Händel has lovely manners,” Mother allowed. “Your father said that he played extremely well.” Pointedly, “Perhaps you could tell us more about that, Grete?” 

        Anna Margareta blushed and concentrated on the washing up. 

        After the girls had been sent upstairs, Anna Margareta paced the room uneasily. What were her father and the visitors saying down there? She knew that her father would be conscientious to a fault in describing the rigors of the position, the stubbornness of the church officials, and the tight-fistedness of the town burgers. Had Händel and Mattheson seen enough of Lübeck to appreciate its charms? It must be different from Hamburg, though both towns were proud of their history as founders of the Hanseatic League. 

        And how would the visitors respond when they understood that accepting the job at St. Mary’s required them to marry Anna Margareta? She slipped into bed and lay uneasily as men’s voices and pipe smoke arose from the study late into the evening. To Anna Margareta’s ear they sounded congenial, though occasionally her father could be heard making an emphatic point. Finally, unable to sleep, Anna Margareta heard the two young men ascending to the attic bedroom. She strained to hear: what were they saying? Were they – oh, God! – making fun of her? 

        Perhaps a bit tipsy, and unaware of how their voices carried, the two discussed what they had learned. 

        “The salary is pitiful,” Mattheson complained. “How he must slave to support this household! Scraping up events with the town musicians! I would have thought a man of his position was above busking for his supper.”  

        “I wouldn’t mind,” Händel admitted quietly. “Herr Buxtehude is well-respected in Lübeck, and he seems to enjoy playing the viola da gamba with the town musicians.” Mattheson huffed dismissively. “And Lübeck supports the Evening Music concerts,” Händel continued. “Imagine the possibilities! All of Germany comes every year to hear them. A man could make his name as a composer here – and he wouldn’t have to stay forever.” 

        With a slight edge, Mattheson inquired, “And the daughter? Are you inclined?” There was a pause during which Anna Margareta thought her heart might actually have stopped. 

        “Not very,” confessed Händel finally. “Are you?” 

         “Not in the slightest,” Mattheson clipped out. The emphasis he placed on each word fell like blows on Anna Margareta’s ears. Long after the young men had settled for the night and the attic had fallen silent, she lay awake contemplating the cruelty of Mattheson’s dismissal. 

        Oddly, for a moment she felt more offended for her father than for herself. How could either of these young men refuse one of the most desirable positions in Germany? But this was quickly followed by a deep feeling of shame. Why exactly were they refusing it? Was it the organist position, Lübeck, or herself? Her mother’s voice (“we must show them how charming you can be, Grete!”) rang in her head. Anna Margareta knew that Father would regret only the loss of Händel’s talents for St. Mary’s, but Mother would surely be angry at Anna Margareta for spoiling her chances. 


        In the morning, Anna Margareta arose drearily; not even the aroma of sweet rolls (an unusual treat in the Buxtehude household) arising from the kitchen lightened her mood. Sophia and Catrin eyed Anna Margareta but said nothing; her sleepless night must have shown on her face. Perhaps they too had overheard the conversation in the attic. The three went down together to help their mother with breakfast. 

       In the kitchen, Anna Margareta asked her mother, “What did Father decide?” 

        Mother shook her head angrily. “Neither one wants the job, it seems.” For once, Sophia was silent; the girls laid the table quietly.

        When the visitors straggled downstairs, they seemed anxious to be gone. Both young men were polite but spoke little, mostly of the journey back to Hamburg. No one raised the question of their staying; a gloom hung over the conversation and everyone seemed relieved when their carriage arrived.

        Anna Margareta and her parents followed the visitors out into the courtyard, where a driving rain hastened the leavetaking. As Händel made his farewell to her, Anna Margareta steeled herself and said in a rush “Y-y-y-you play very well, Herr Händel.” This earned her a surprised, shy smile and a quick bow before Händel joined Mattheson in the carriage, which departed quickly into the rain.

       As they returned to the house, Anna Margareta ventured, “Father? Are you disappointed?” 

        Buxtehude surveyed his daughter thoughtfully. “I don’t think they would have been happy here. Mattheson thinks he is meant for greater things, and Händel, it seems, will do what Mattheson tells him.” Anna Margareta nodded and waited for more. After a moment, Buxtehude asked gently, “And you? Are you disappointed?” 

        Anna Margareta shook her head and withdrew, but continued to contemplate the question as she prepared to run an errand for her mother. Was she disappointed? In some sense, certainly: it hurt less to reject than to be rejected. And she was acutely aware of the disappointment of her mother and sisters, who were so anxious for the matter of Anna Margareta’s marriage to be resolved. But for herself? 

        As Anna Margareta put on her cloak to leave the house she realized that what she was feeling was not disappointment, but relief. Not to have to be the wife of the man with the restless calculating eye, who would never stop seeking his own advantage regardless of the cost to others. Not to be handmaiden to the genius of the other: she knew well how her mother’s life had been subsumed in servitude to her father’s genius. 

        The rain had stopped, and a weak April sun glossed the wet cobblestones as Anna Margareta passed down the street. Above all, she was relieved that the decision had been deferred. She might be Buxtehude’s daughter, to be bartered as part of a business deal, but she was still Anna Margareta Buxtehude and for the moment at least, the possibility of grace was still open to her.



Taylor Woodworth


Shortly after the geese fly south

and the Jack O’Lantern smile 

melts into a grimace,

darkness begins to infect.

Spreading like fog over a 

desolate graveyard,

the night cloaks 

the cityscape

and I lay sleepless.

Between the unfinished 

tasks of the day and 

the sound of midnight scraping 

my name into a lone headstone, 

I’m afraid the only 

dream-like state I will inhabit 

is the all too familiar 

4am delirium. 

My monochromatic days consist 

of searching for the 

REM cycle on the washing machine

and endless hours

of sitcom laugh tracks

that giggle at me every time

I stumble walking up the stairs.

Every hour I sink a little 

deeper into my memory 

foam mattress,

and hope that the sun will come 

to rescue me from dusk.

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Sydney Ross



tuesday mornings

come and go


leaves blowing


in the wind,

my hair 


around my neck

like a noose


to tighten

at any

given moment.

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No Welcome Wagon

Luka Russo 


That decrepit ashtray is a gatekeeper, 


and knowing watchdog.


I have been here before, 

crying over traphouse children's laughter,

trembling with sisters in school chairs reused.



We marked calendars with dead friends birthdays,

and that bucket of inkless pens: 

an unwanted triumph.

Now my body is a compass for breathing.


I, once a shrouded corset,

followed it to this entrance. 

Where cigarettes wrap secrets until they are burned into the air. 

I inhale and listen.


Anywhere I choose to snarl at my demons. 

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The Eulogy of a Taxidermied Elk Skull

Stephanie Thomson


I wonder if I’ll ever be more than a 

taxidermied skull of an Irish elk

hanging from a ceiling with fractured bones,

oleanders growing in the cracks,

floral overgrowing along the carcass. 


You’d watch it like a predator stalking its prey.

Still and holy.

Waxing and waning.

Watching like a lonely moon,

circulating an abandoned planet.

Am I like the taxidermied skull of an Irish elk

with overgrown antlers 

getting entangled in the trees? 

Too large to support my head

as I sink deeper and deeper 

into the sea.

Do my eyes match the hollowed-out gaze

of the skull of an Irish elk? 

Dulled out,

fragmented remains of a life once lived.

Do you love me 

like you love

the taxidermied skull of an Irish elk?

Do you pray to its skeletal remains like a lost deity?

Am I nothing but a silhouette?

Not even your shadow?


Maybe I am nothing but a skull hanging from a ceiling,

A forgotten frame 

ith cracked antlers and 

blood leaking from the roots.


I am the taxidermied skull of an Irish elk.

I am the bindings of orthogenesis theory.

The long since abandoned theory

of how the Irish elk went extinct. 

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The Stone Pig

Casey Elder


in the backyard

the stone pig

plays sentry


wisps of smoke

drift by on the breeze

in the otherwise still night


beyond lies the crooked fence

bulging with the overgrowth

of ivy and aphrodite


in the shadow of the big house

a hammering on the sauna being built

ricochets out into the open air


i am looking into the yard

where my mother and father were married

within the soul of the 70’s


from my grandmother’s gardening

to my mother’s pruning

to mine and my brother’s


sometimes sleeping off the drink

on the covered swing

until the cold crept in


the stone pig

which nearly toppled me over in moving it

sits with all patience, watching

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