Cotton Xenomorph is a new literary journal produced with the mission to showcase new, and ecstatic art while reducing language of oppression in our community. We are dedicated to uplifting new and established voices while engaging in thoughtful conversation around social justice.

Rock, Paper, Moon

Microscope 1_2 MO.JPG

By Kathryn McMahon (Art by Morgan Osburn)

Gus is not insecure, he just likes jotting in the notepad he carries around. Betta splendens. White full-moon tail. Male. Lifespan: 2-5 years. $22.99. Beside him in the car, the fishbowl sloshes. A birthday gift for his boyfriend who always jokes about his note taking and calls the notepad Gus’s “paper blankie.” But at home after Gus had his latest panic attack at the restaurant, Simon shreds the notepad meticulously, yet ferociously, yelling, “Can’t you put it away? You’re so embarrassing!”

The slamming door blows confetti around Gus. Words hang in the air, and when he walks through them, they nick little cuts all over his face and start to spin. Mail on the kitchen counter flutters past him and joins the whirling paper. It spins faster. Gus curls up in the foyer and covers his ears. Files burst from drawers along with stacks of old, filled notepads. Books wriggle off shelves and spread their covers as wide as legs, spitting forth pages until they are only spines. All that paper coalesces first into a pulpy disc, then folds in on itself, tighter, tighter, balling into a moon cratered with ink.

When he stands, it orbits him. He tries to catch it, but the moon just shakes him off. Across its surface, his life flashes by: grocery lists and phone-call shorthand. Vaccination records, report cards, bank statements. Flyers for the roommate who became the boyfriend that was Simon. Notes from Jazz Improv 285. Remember when he thought he’d spend his life pursuing that? Notes from Econ 305. Poetry he wrote when he was nine to Karen Fitzgerald, the first girl he loved. Poetry he wrote at seventeen to Oliver Tidmarsh, the first boy he loved. QXI-0783 scrawled on a police report; the plate from the Chevy Impala that Oliver, at a fatal nineteen, totaled into a saguaro. More grocery lists and a litany of coupons and receipts.

In the bowl staring up at Gus and his moon, the white betta fans his celestial tail. Oliver. He will call him Oliver II.

The moon follows him everywhere. In the shower, it gets wet and the ink separates into blue-purple smears that provoke strange, cold dreams. In the morning, his moon follows him to work and, knocking against the outside of his Honda, it narrowly misses a semi. After the moon begins to pound at the window, he pulls over to let it in and straps it to the passenger seat. But in the office parking lot, he idles. It seems cruel to leave the moon in the hot sun. It makes up his mind for him and squeezes out of the door. In the office, co-workers raise their eyebrows at Gus and his moon. He ignores them. He’s good at ignoring people. At lunch, he steals a new notepad from the supply room and sits at his desk observing the moon’s orbit, but it is steady, and soon five thirty comes.

At home, the paper moon drags tides over the fishbowl. Gus makes notes. Oliver II sees his reflection and flares his gills. When the moon circles, he tries to fight it. Does he want to protect me?

Ink waxes and wanes. The lunar fonts change. When his orb vanishes into the shadows of a room, Gus feels mortality crescendoing around his head. Sometimes, he sees his own face in the moon’s fullness and wants to hide. Sometimes, he sees other moon-rendered men. He dreams he’s straddling a crescent and wakes up in a moat of sweat.

He goes to check on Oliver II who flares his gills again. The ink winks into ones and zeroes; ones and nothings but nothings that want to be noticed. They run together in battering waves, though he does not understand the nature of their ocean.

Gus, Oliver II, and moon watch a show about space. Gus takes notes. The moon was once nearer to Earth but has been drifting away, pushed by tides like an ambivalent lover. The show didn’t quite say that , but Gus scribbles it in his notepad anyway. Lately, he has had the urge to write poetry. Moon rock and earth are made of the same material. His moon is not made of him, is it? The real moon was born after a rogue planet smashed into Earth and gravity divided the pieces. He stops writing. How did gravity decide? How did it go, “This bit, this is part of you now. And this? This? This is for the other one of you, the one who feels small and dead and can never let go.”

His notepad is full. Gus tries not to, but the next day he buys another. He always has to have one, just like the moon always has to have him. He keeps track of Oliver’s habits, and after his eventual death, which he records, Gus buys another shimmering white fish. Oliver II: 3.8 years. Oliver III: 4.1 years… Oliver VI: 2.7 years.

The paper moon orbits for a decade before its crust yellows. Betta Olivers continue to flare their gills at it. The ink keeps up its tricks. A face wanders over the moon. Gus doesn’t recognize it but feels he used to. The moon swings into his periphery with a faded wedding announcement. It bears his name and one other that whooshes past in a blur. Valleys of sentences stutter with joint tax returns that should’ve been. At a shared mortgage. At adoption papers for twins.

Gus jumps and grabs the moon. It had almost drifted out of reach. An aloof lover. He holds the bone-brittle orb and it vibrates, cracking and jettisoning paper. He carries the moon to the fish bowl and dips it in the water. This Oliver, too, flares his gills, then circles the glass, shoots up, and burrows into the moon. It swells and grows heavy and long. Legs form. Then a torso. Arms. A head that he nearly lets go of, until the moonman puts his hands over Gus’s and leans in.


Kathryn McMahon’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Syntax and Salt, The Cincinnati Review, The Baltimore Review, Jellyfish Review, Necessary Fiction, and others, as well as in the food and horror anthology Sharp & Sugar Tooth: Women Up to No Good (Upper Rubber Boot, 2019). Recently, she has received nominations for Best Small Fictions, Best of the Net, and the Pushcart, and she was a finalist in the 2017 Wyvern Lit flash fiction contest. She also reads prose for The Adroit Journal. On Twitter, she is @katoscope. Find more of her writing at darkandsparklystories.com.

(Artist) Morgan Osburn is currently a Senior at Randolph College, pursuing multiple degrees: BFA in Studio, BA in Art History, and a minor in Religious Studies. She works primarily in printmaking, monotyping and etching, as well as oil painting, and mixed media, incorporating elements of drawing, painting, and collaged found materials. Her art has been published in various journals and catalogs, most recently Hail! Muse. She has art on permanent display at Randolph College, and has art on temporary display at the Conway Student Art Corner, and in the Community Art Display at Menchie’s in Charlotte, NC. After undergrad, she hopes to attend graduate school in order to pursue her MFA in Studio Art.


Artist's Statement, "Microscope 1/2" Monoprint, 10x8 inches, 2017:

My work generally can be identified by its juxtaposition of naturalistic colors and forms, with brightly colored abstracted imagery and fluid lines. My process for printmaking focuses on creating differences in texture and layering them with my stencils made from mylar. I use steel wool, and ghost printing to achieve unique effects on my plates, and even print my etching plates underneath monotyping. Painting for me begins by building layers of color, such as natural browns and maroons shaded with hues of blue, yellow ochre, and crimson. Depth is created through layering abstracted forms, generally with a downward propulsion of movement. I prefer to work in series because I find that I can more efficiently impart my intent through multiple iterations of similar compositions, colors, and imagery.

I find that my painting and printmaking planning processes begin similarly, which is through a close study of my sketchbooks collaged with images and notes of research into Biological and Biblical imagery, Western religious imagery, specifically from the 12th-16th centuries, and scientific prints. My sketchbooks have images of cellular and anatomical images, assumptions of the Virgin, depictions of God and figures with halos, because I love organic circles, specifically images of halos, cells, eyes, breasts, crowns, globes, and celestial orbs. I want my work to convey a mystical, spiritual mood through its color and abstract imagery. The titles of my works are meant to reveal the inspiration or thought process behind each series. My study of art history and religious studies has undoubtably influenced my artwork, as has my travels while studying abroad in Italy.

at the art institute of chicago

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