Agnes has a headache. The thick air presses her temples, her heavy-lidded eyes squint despite the lack of sun. She glances up, for the hundredth time that morning. Black clouds broil above the fields, frothing like a mad dog’s spit, resisting the wet wind tossing them across a purple sky to merge with the distant mountains. The wind is false, mild, non-wintry.
Agnes crosses herself and returns to raking out the pig’s sty. The Devil has been let loose from Hell this morning. Her thoughts go to Evan, fishing on the river. He’s a farmer, not a fisherman, but the rare higher tide today has tempted him. Lamprey for our supper tonight, he told her with his big grin when he left in the darkness. The river will run fast. Agnes shivers. She never trusts the river. It might be called Severn these days but Agnes has heard the heathen Romans called the river Sabrina, worshipped her as a goddess and the Good Lord knows she’s every bit as temperamental as any goddess. Agnes crosses herself again.
She finishes her raking, slow and clumsy with her big belly, bloated with child. She throws fresh straw into the sty, refills the water trough. The pig crouches in a corner, tiny eyes watching her. It seems wary, as if Agnes is a stranger come to do it harm. Not yet, piggy, not yet.
Agnes presses one hand to her throbbing head, another to her belly, and returns the pig’s stare before waddling across the yard to the farmhouse. The hens cluck around her legs, fluffing their feathers. Agnes impatiently pushes the most persistent aside with her boot. They follow her inside, cackling as if their necks are about to be wrung. Agnes scowls. Their necks might well be wrung if they keep this up.
‘Lewis,’ she says to her six-year-old, and the oldest, ‘did you search all over for eggs? These idiot birds will have laid them in any hole or under any bush today.’
‘Yes, Ma.’ Lewis pokes the fire with a stick and reaches for the last of the wood piled by the hearth.
Agnes sighs, pulls her shawl tighter and peers into the cradle where baby Rhys sleeps. She strokes his fat pink cheek. A beautiful baby, quiet. An angel.
‘Where is Gwillim?’ Agnes says. ‘Is he fetching wood?’
Lewis shakes his head. ‘He wanted to go fishing with Da.’
A cold finger slides down the nape of Agnes’ neck. Gwillim is four, and fearless. ‘He’s gone to the river?’
‘Then you must fetch the wood while I find him. A storm is coming, a violent storm. He’ll be blown away if he’s caught out in it.’
She goes into the yard and looks up, again, at the sky. The wind pulls at her uncapped hair to send it swirling about her head like the swirling of lampreys in the river.
‘Stupid, stupid Evan,’ she mutters. ‘Stupid, stupid Gwillim’.
Her chest tightens and she runs into the wind, through the gate in the stone wall which protects her vegetables from the sheep, and along the path to the river.
She stops. Water races towards her. It covers the path and spreads to the left and the right, churning in a froth of brown and dirty white like storm waves on the seashore.
But it’s not the blue sea. Agnes recognises the colours of the river, which, it seems, reached its high tide and wasn’t content to stop. Instead it has swelled like Agnes’ stomach until it’s burst the non-too-sturdy defences meant to keep it to its own banks.
Evan? Gwillim? Agnes can’t breathe.
She steps forward, into the water, and is knocked to her backside. It rises, rises, and Agnes is pushed and dragged, straining to stand but her belly and her sodden skirts drag her, the river tumbling her like a stone. A sheep floats past, legs scrabbling, terror-wide eyes rolling. It bleats. There’s more bleating, the heartrending cries joining together to lift above the silence of the rising waters, to cut through the braying of the wind.
Agnes heaves against the water, pushes her arms forward and finds the stone wall. She pushes her shaking body against it and cries as loudly as the drowning sheep when the water churns through the gate, swift as a spring stream, and into the house.
The wind whips her thin voice away but Lewis is there, by the door, his knees submerged.
‘The table!’ Agnes yells, terror finally giving her strength to shout. ‘Climb on the table!’
Lewis nods, bright boy, while Agnes prays to God that the table, weighed down with Lewis and the iron pot Agnes had been about to fill with dinner, won’t float.
Rhys! The cradle is on the floor by the fire. It will float, and Lewis will grab it, hold it against the water, keep his baby brother safe. Agnes’ body shakes harder, and not from cold alone.
Her hands and feet grow numb, terror pounds her heart against her ribs, but still she clings to the wall. The water rises up her legs, to her waist, spilling over the stones to level itself either side of her fragile sanctuary. She is half-blinded by her hair, can hear nothing except wind and water and screaming sheep, but she turns her head, praying for a sight of Evan striding through the swirling muck, Gwillim on his shoulders.
What she sees instead is the cradle, and she is sick at the knowledge that the water inside the house has reached the window. Her baby son sails out of view and Agnes pushes herself along the wall, stone by stone. Her feet barely touch the ground, the water eddies around her like a whirlpool sucking her into its depths.
If Evan were here, he could swim to the cradle. But Evan is on the river, in the river. With Gwillim. And Agnes can’t swim.
She clutches the stones and joins her screams to the cacophony of the sheep.
It’s near dark when the wind drops to tired squalls and the water recedes enough to let a trembling Agnes squelch to the mud-filled house. Lewis is there, crouched on the table with four fright-struck hens gathered tight against his legs. Agnes takes the boy, hens and all, in her shivering arms.
‘I couldn’t get to him, Ma.’ Lewis sobs into her chest.
‘I know, I know.’ Neither could Agnes. She knows Lewis’ pain.
‘Da?’ Lewis says. ‘Gwillim?’
Agnes shakes her head. ‘They will come if they come,’ she says and gulps back sobs for Lewis’ sake. ‘But now I have to see about the pig and the cow.’ She sets the boy and the hens on the floor, takes Lewis’ hand. It’s unspoken that she won’t leave him alone, not this time.
The cow is gone, but the pig is on the roof of its sty, lifted by the water, kept alive by the higher walls on three sides. It stares at Agnes with accusing tiny eyes. It had been right to be wary.
‘We have the pig still,’ Agnes says to Lewis.
‘And the hens I saved.’ He takes her hand and offers a trembling, fleeting, smile.
Agnes cups her free hand beneath her belly. She feels life there too.
Note: The Great Flood of 30 January 1607 devastated both sides of the Bristol Channel and the Severn Estuary with flooding as far as Gloucester. At least 500-1000 people and thousands of livestock perished.
(c) Cheryl Burman
Soft and peaceful. The river wind rolls through the south stairwell window and cools the bed sheets after a warm day. I close my eyes and wait, then ...
Grabbed by my ankles. Driven against the opposite wall. Shouts. Threats. Slammed again. I know who is doing this but pretend ignorance. Say nothing. Not now. Silence, then hauled upside down and thrown back into bed. Door slammed. More silence.
Then again. And again. I listen. No sound. Then …
Ankles seized again. Shouts. Deep voice. My back and head hit the wall. Threats. Thrown back into bed. More threats.
Later, grasped by my arms and pulled. Jerked up, then twisted so I face the wall. Temples pounded with the heel of his hands as if my head were a timpani.
No need to think. I know. Loud, dark, threatening - intrusive thrusts as brutal as any I have ever felt. And I will not forget who did it.
Slamming. Collision of hand against temple again and again. Maybe once. Maybe twice. Maybe more. Night after night. In the bedroom. My bedroom.
Despite psychiatrists, psychologists, priests. Despite medications and confessions. Despite hospitals and rooms with or without furniture, where they tell me what they want to hear so they can turn me into a clinical diagnosis. I know they were not dreams. Not psychotic episodes. I know who did it. I know. And I know he knows.
Before, during and after they try to kill me, I know.
And I still know.
I will wait, then …
(c) Thomas Elson
Abbey Gorge is no Mount Everest. The Escarpment, anyway, is not the place to live near if you want a difficult climb. Abbey has a small overhang around thirty-five feet, some scree, and nothing more. But, as I explained to everyone, you don’t want a difficult slope for the first climb of the season.
I reached the conservation area around five. Just before the road dipped into the gorge, I could see a thin red band against the horizon. The parking lot, though, was steeped in a musky darkness. A solitary lamppost put down a small circle of light in the lot’s center. The air was chill, and slightly damp.
The forecast that morning had said mostly cloudy with some sun, high of fifty-four, P of P sixty-two percent. Not great climbing weather, but you don’t have much choice in April. Thirty-eight percent chance of no rain is good enough for me.
I parked my truck over in the corner and set up our registration table in that little pool of light. I laid out the signup sheet, and a few indemnity forms, just in case.
It’s always like this for the first climb of the season.
We run a rock wall every year at the winter Sports Show. The wall is one of the most popular events. From it we get a couple dozen sign-ups at least. Then they just fade away. I suppose kids these days want their climbing all laid out for them, with colorful markers for where to put your feet and a slip rope to grab you. They don’t climb on real rock. Between February and April, we sent out maybe five emails and got no response.
Only ten new people showed up for our pre-climb safety session. If it hadn’t been for the regulars we wouldn’t have been able to cover the cost of the room.
Still, it is ten new ones. If they could stay it would be great. But, every year, it seems, they come for a few climbs and then just fade away. By the Annual Banquet, we’re back to the same old regulars making the same old speeches about how next year will be our breakthrough year.
I really need this year to be our breakthrough year. It’s my first year as President.
Nathan stepped down last banquet, after eight years. His wife Marianne, at least, stayed on as secretary. She kept the email list going and sent out the regular reminders. Up until last Tuesday.
Since then I haven’t been unable to reach her. I phoned, several times. No response. My voice messages were getting quite desperate by Friday.
I’m an optimistic guy, but, sitting at the table in the small pool of light, in an empty parking lot, unable to see even the gorge wall in the dark, I wondered if this year we wouldn’t have anyone left to make speeches at the Annual Banquet.
Then I heard the scratch of wheel on gravel, somewhere above. A new Ford truck pulled into the lot. Cochran Addams, one of the regulars, with his son Neil. Neil drove. When I’d come for my first climb he’d been a toddler.
“Where’s the gang?”
I glanced at my sheet. “Eighteen today, plus some possibles. I’m sure they’ll show up.”
“Don’t be so damn optimistic, Ian. I told you. Abbey Gorge is a horrible climb. And a bugger to get to. Your directions sucked, by the way. Where’s Marianne?”
“Hi, Uncle Ian.” Neil had finished locking the truck and unloading the gear. “Anyone new this climb? Like anyone my age?”
I looked over my sheet again. “I got a couple of names from Thornhill I think were from the rock climb.”
“Hope they’re girls. We need more rock-climbing girls.”
“That’s all that boy thinks about these days, is girls.”
Light had started to separate the sky from the cliff, and to paint the lot a purplish gray. People showed up in ones and twos. Neil was right: we needed more girls. Looking at the clumps of people standing around, it struck me how much we’re the same: men, hair turning to silver or shaved clean, fitness-club toned. We all sported new gear, all in yellow and black.
We need new blood.
By five forty-five I began to have trouble breathing. We’d have to start soon. Only eight. All regulars. Our worst showing since that year it snowed.
Then I heard the particular kind of spur a car makes when it’s been driven too quickly over gravel. A few moments later, Marianne pulled up. “Hi guys.” She waved at everyone. She jumped out with a clutch of sheets in her hand. “Sorry I’m late. Oh, hi, Ian. You put the table out already.” She flopped her papers down, held them there with her palm, and began cross-referencing my scribbles.
She seemed to lean awfully close to my head as she did that. “Here, Marianne,” I said. “Have a seat.” From somewhere, she had purchased a set of fashionable, form-fitting gear in burgundy and olive. Even though she was in her forties like the rest of us, she had slimmed down and toned up since the safety training. She’d even given her hair a new color.
“Ben and Mercy are coming,” she said, a bit breathlessly. “I passed them at the coffee shop in Rockton. They got lost looking for ‘Harley’s Lane’. Why didn’t you say, ‘Concession Nine’? Greg Gigson I don’t know, but I think-”
“I tried calling you last night.”
“Oh. Oh! I forgot to give you my new cell.”
“What happened to the old one?” In the last few years, changing one’s cell number has become like, well, changing your name.
“I smashed it. Listen, don’t tell anyone, Ian. I’ve left Nathan. Ah! Julian did show.”
I didn’t know what to say. Julian was just lumbering up to the table. He really shouldn’t be rock climbing, not with his weight and his heart condition, but he’s our most regular member. Marianne registered his consent form with a grin and a coquettish shake of her now russet hair. He grinned back. Perhaps I was still digesting what she had said, but, somehow, I found her actions a bit too vivacious. A bit too... available.
“Listen Ian,” she said, as soon as Julian had gone off. She turned to me with her face slightly uplifted, which accentuated her elegant cheekbones. She smiled warmly. I couldn’t help smiling back, though it made me nervous. “Can I ask you a favor? I didn’t take my gear when I left. I really need some cams and stuff, and, you know, you always have your spare set...”
“Oh. I... I don’t think it’s in the truck anymore. I’ll check. Maybe you can ask Neil, Cochran just bought him a whole new rig. Maybe he brought his old one.”
Later, I went back to the truck. I reached my arm behind the seat and was surprised to feel the knapsack still there. I held it on my lap, and just sat. From the cab I could see Marianne standing under the lamppost, in the circle of light that had almost lost its effect. She was talking to Neil and waving her hands in small circles. I could see she had tipped one foot, in its new climbing boot, up on its toe. Like that, from this distance, she really did look more his age than mine.
I don’t know why I didn’t call her over and tell her about the pack. I flipped my thumb across the catch, back and forth. Eight years I’ve known Marianne, and Nathan. She’s the best secretary we’ve ever had. Nathan adored her, but he was the kind of guy who would phone in the middle of an executive committee meeting to say he’d accidentally burnt the kids’ dinner. Or locked himself out of the house.
I put the pack back behind the seat. Not because of Nathan. Not because of the way Marianne was talking to Neil. The gear isn’t mine to give.
The lawyers won’t tell me where Beth is. All they’ll say is that she’s taken Iris out of the country. Their hands are tied. I’m going to have to accept I won’t get visitation. And that she doesn’t want the gear.
But I’m keeping it anyway. And, I decided, I’ll keep it a little longer.
(C) D.M. Kerr
His fat-framed glasses were the first thing people saw. They were the type where the lenses turn muddy-coloured in the sun. Even on that day, in the brightest light, the lenses wouldn’t turn completely black. They went brown, the colour of a cold woodland pond, stagnating in its stillness, still except the miniscule ripples of tadpoles’ tails.
Those glasses dehumanised him. They mechanised him, so that in the everyone else’s eyes, he was not skin and synapse, just glass and plastic, held together with tiny screws. They gave off inorganic reflections, so perfect that they can only be mirrored in man-made objects.
The worst thing was that he knew how they saw him. He sensed so much more than they gave him credit for, although sometimes he wished he was blind to it all.
In truth, the glasses had taken over many years ago. He had never wanted them, nor his damned off-beat eyeballs. They pointed in different directions, not all the time, and not very much, but enough. His mother would say “They are a sign of your attentiveness as a child, Matthew. You want to keep one eye on Mummy and one on Daddy.” He knew more than she gave him credit for as well.
The glasses were embedded. Now, when he folded them away at night, phantom imprints remained at the sides of his nose. When he looked at himself, naked in the mirror, there was something wrong, in his eyes, in his reflection, in the reflection of his eyes.
The village was beginning to bustle again, in the way it did before the virus and its rules. His shyness tugged at his neck, as he scurried downwards, towards the sea, to the fishing village where a community had chosen to live and work. Down the steep hill, where the single day of flash floods had left ghost trails of stones and silt, splitting and fusing.
A shortcut into the park, through the only gap in the hedge, which grew wider and less controversial with every push through it. A track was worn into the mud, leading from the gap in the hedge to the official path. It was a line on a graph representing the average choices we make, the mean. He chose not to tread there, instead walking in parallel, past the cordoned playground where the empty swings taunted the village’s children.
He stopped for a second before reaching the shopping street, to push the frame up his face, with a deliberate middle finger. With his shield in place he continued, past the parched pubs and still-shuttered shops, with their fading rainbows drawn on dog-eared, drooping leaves.
The villagers, those now brave or bored enough to dare the outside air, were together again, wandering around each other on tactical, arcing paths, steering around suspects while at the same time twisting their torsos at the waist, like He-Man figures. If greetings were exchanged, they were offered without exhaling. They did not look into each other’s eyes because they feared, deep down, that any connection between humans, even a beam of light, could spread it.
Overhead, the sky was pure azure, with no coughs of cumulus at all. A single jet trail, a splatter across the sky. He was sweating now and it ran down the back of his calves and droplets gathered at the bridge of his nose, deciding which way to fall. He dipped his index finger behind the frames and into the murky depths.
Other villagers wandered blindly, the flash of the outside world stilling burning on their retinas. Their well-washed hands were held safely behind their backs and their identities were withheld behind BFE1 grade masks. Some of them looked longingly into windows, at candles and shoes and toys. In the florists, they saw the green plastic pots, still marked with hand-written price tags but holding no flowers, just dregs of fluid, green with nutrients and no cycle of life to fulfil.
He began to regret not wearing a mask. It would not have hidden his eyes, but behind the mask he didn’t wear, he could have walked unseen. It was not the virus he feared, just the villagers, their recognition, their judgements, their small talk.
With headphones plugging his ear canals, there was little of the world that could reach him. If their small words were to arrive in the way he feared, maybe he could deny them. Maybe the faceless music and its beautiful distraction would deliver the providence he prayed for, although, it deafened him to the slap of jogging shoes approaching from behind, and he started, his hackles yanked, his heart struck.
Though the village was brown, he knew its true colours. The butchered backdrop of Morris and Sons was draped blood-red and as he flashed his cleaver, Mr Morris’s veiny cheeks blushed to bursting. The fishmonger’s wellington boots were rubber-black as he sluiced the pavement free of fish scales. The cobbler’s brassy keys swung slightly in the wind of passing villagers, and the long-printed mugs that gathered dust in the window, were branded with birthday wishes in outdated fonts, and their once-bold hues were now bleached by time’s mushroom cloud.
The coffee shop had inverted itself. It was closed inside but its furniture was strewn in the street, literally on the road, corralled by yellow road works barriers. The villagers that sat there were biblically proud of their freedoms and they sipped drinks beneath masks that kept out the virus and the diesel fumes.
A waitress. Blue eyes, blue gloves, white mask. She came into his life through a hatch. In the shade of the coffee shop’s awning, the brown of his lenses began to retreat and he felt his cover melting away.
Flustered, and out of practice in speaking to other humans, his voice was intermittent. A radio losing touch. ‘Pardon?’ she said to him, clear despite her mask. ‘Americano,’ he said again. ‘Coffee. Please.’
Confirmation came with a nod and the thrust of a contactless payment unit. He had to reach inside the hatch to tap it, and as soon as it squealed, he recoiled and backed off, away from the virus, and from her judgements. His lenses were clearing now and his diverging eyeballs were beginning to excite themselves at their closeness to freedom. Not now. He stepped out of the shade and back into hiding.
He turned away from her and towards the sea. The sweep of the insular bay was so long that it turned in on itself. Things settle here, he thought, it is difficult for them to escape.
A muffled call. The reassuring plop of plastic cup on counter. He stepped back under the awning and felt his eyes fighting each other for a focal point. He thanked her and cursed himself. His bloody eyes, his bloody genes. This bloody village.
He let the promenade take him away. The steam from his coffee rose, chuffing, like the train that once rode here. The train and the industries it served are long gone, replaced by a civic pathway, split clean down the middle, half for walkers and half for bikes. He walked in the middle, after all, he was part-machine.
A shapeless peloton of teenagers rode past, on bikes with obese tyres, and with handlebars guiding themselves. He stepped aside and watched them glide, fearless and bouncing, their bodies shirtless and whippet-ribbed.
One of them spat. It landed on the prom where it bubbled with infection. He stepped around it. Further down the path a fallen ice cream was sinking into the ground, and further again, a splatter of dog sick was cooking on the asphalt. A swollen seagull picked at it. It was a bird of our time, so full and fat that it shone like the cosmetic cheek bones of middle-aged women bursting with botulinum.
He sat for a moment, on a bench offset from the promenade, out of its flow. He perched, determined not to give the virus any more of his body than necessary.
With his lenses fully brown, he was safe in their shadow and he could watch the villagers unchecked. He watched a paddle boarder in the waves, wobbling as he pulled his wet t-shirt away from his love handles. He saw a husband striding metres ahead of his wife, as if she were not worthy of waiting. A lonely woman, walking in desert boots with no laces, eating a tube of crisps.
The coffee burnt his lip. After that, it was tarnished so he threw it in a council-branded bin and took the long way home, not back the way he came, but past the cars that now queued to get into the village, their windows withdrawn and their passengers glaring. The engine heat rose wistfully like a million dead and distorted spirits.
He hurried away from them, turning upwards, through the cemetery, where the worn, toppling stones backed away from him and where only the cherubs stared and the angels pointed.
(c) Stephen Lisle
“The old man was practically inconsolable.”
As usual, Detective Bump Guidry began his tale in medias res, though by now this lack of preamble no longer bothered the bartender, Mabel. As she saw it, ferreting out the necessary prefatory material was her contribution to the investigative process, helping Bump reconsider, rearrange, and reimagine his materials.
“The old man being...” prodded Mabel.
“Percy Gladstone,” Bump replied. He stared absently at the row of bottles behind the bar and took a long, leisurely sip of his drink. Mabel waited for him to expand on this with what she believed to be an appropriate level of patience, after which whatever gene controls a low level of good-natured exasperation was activated.
“Burglary,” Bump finally responded. “Had some kind of fancy knick-knack stolen from him last night.”
“And what was this little trinket that got thefted?” Mabel asked.
Bump shrugged, as if he did not himself understand what all the fuss was about. “Not sure what you would call this thing. So far as anyone knows, it’s the only one of its kind in existence. Way Chester explained it to me, little do-dad should be in a museum.”
At the mention of Bump’s partner, Detective Chester Ruthven, Mabel gave a dismissive snort and exaggerated eye roll.
“Hey now,” Bump said, “Chester is the smartest guy I ever met. When he imparts info to you, take that as gospel. Never known him not to know what he’s talking about.”
“Typical egghead if you ask me,” Mabel replied. “Probably filled you boys in on all the particulars of whatever this thing is, everybody ooh-ing and ahh-ing at how brilliant he is. The famous crime fighter Chester Ruthven. I still say he can’t hold a candle to you and me honey.”
“Mabel, you make me blush. Anyway, allow me to quote. ‘This artifact,’ Chester said, ‘is, as far as anyone knows, the only example of a secure storage box, a safe if you will, designed around 215 B.C. by Archimedes. It is, in fact, presumed to be the handiwork of the great man himself. The technology, like other feats of engineering from that time and place, is far beyond anything seen before, and really for over two thousand years since.’ ‘Amazing,’ I says to him. ‘What is something like that worth?’ ‘There is nothing else like it,’ Chester says, ‘so its worth is truly beyond measure. Only the most sophisticated felon could have pulled this off, someone with exceptional daring and skill, someone who knows he cannot possibly profit monetarily from this heinous adventure, someone who wishes only to possess the tangible light of genius in which to bask.’ ‘Unless,’ I says, ‘someone hired him to do it.’ Chester pondered that for a while, so I took the chance to view some photos of the item in question. Truth be told, it wasn’t much to look at, just a simple block of stone, marble it turns out, cut into a kind of storage box, only about six- or eight-inches square. According to Chester, what makes it so ingenious is the intricate locking mechanism. No key, no visible exterior lock, just a bizarre combination of slides and levers that apparently only a handful of people have ever been able to figure out. Must be quite the wonder, because Chester would get this misty look in his eyes whenever he talked about it, and every mention had old man Gladstone weeping anew.”
“Any interesting particulars on the break-in itself?” Mabel asked.
“Ah,” said Bump, setting his glass on the bar just in time to catch the ice Mabel was dropping into the spot she knew it would be. “This is where Chester reinforces his theory of the master thief. No break-in at all. Nothing. Doors still locked, windows secure. Theft occurred sometime when the last servants went to bed around midnight and when Gladstone got up this morning around six. Item was in plain view on a mantle over the fireplace in the den.”
“So, what do you think?” Mabel asked. “I mean, I know you’re no genius like your partner or anything, but are you buying the whole suave, sophisticated Cary Grant-like cat burglar thing? I mean, it’s not as if the servants didn’t have means and opportunity as well.”
Bump winced, as if it pained him to entertain possible objections to the theories of his famous partner. “To be honest, it does sound a little thin to me. I got the impression that maybe Gladstone didn’t really inspire a lot of loyalty in the domestic help. Nothing I can put my finger on, mind you, nothing definite or provable, but I could imagine one of those mutts swiping the silver to pay a debt.”
“Got a guy with a gambling problem, maybe?” Mable asked.
“Geoffrey Birkenau. The cook. A chef, actually. Likes the ponies but they don’t like him. Turns to high stakes poker when the chips are down, and his chips are always down.”
Mabel pursed her lips, apparently bothered by an obvious objection to her own insight.
“Problem, darlin’?” Bump asked.
“OK. So, this cook...”
“Yeah, yeah...quit interrupting. This chef, he needs money, let’s say a lot of money. Gladstone has maybe bailed him out in the past, but no more. This time he puts his foot down. So, this cook...”
“...this chef, he waits until everyone is asleep, grabs the most valuable item in the house and... does what? I mean, this thing is literally priceless. He can’t sell it to anybody. No fence is going to touch this, certainly not any fence this guy knows. So why would he steal a box he can’t sell? Hell, he doesn’t even know how to open the damn thing.”
With a shout of glee that was downright boyish, Bump Guidry jumped from his barstool, spilling his drink, cupped Mabel’s cheeks in both hands, and gave her a loud kiss on the lips.
“You’re a genius!” he cried as he grabbed his coat and headed for the exit. “See you in an hour.”
Sure enough, an hour later Bump Guidry walked through the door with a stride that radiated triumph.
“Well look at you,” Mabel said as she slid a drink into his waiting hand.
“Case closed,” Bump said as he slammed his other hand down on the bar.
“Do tell,” Mabel said, pouring herself a shot of bar whiskey neat and clinking glasses with Bump.
“Everyone assumed,” Bump said, wiping his mouth on his shirt sleeve, “that the box was what the thief was after.”
Mabel’s eyes widened as she found herself reaching the same place that Bump had already landed.
“What was inside the box?”, the single question coming out in two voices. Bump continued.
“Our thief was never after the box at all. He simply assumed that anything that secure must hold something very valuable indeed. And so it did. Turns out, Percy Gladstone had a son who died some years back. Nine years old. Everyone says the boy was the center of the old man’s universe. Percy Gladstone wasn’t weeping over the loss of his precious artifact. What he valued more than anything in the world, the ashes of his son, were what he kept safely locked away in Archimedes’ wonderful strongbox. Me and the boys just went by Geoffrey Birkenau’s apartment. Found a few traces of marble dust on a claw hammer under his kitchen sink. You can probably guess what we dumped out of his vacuum cleaner bag.”
(c) Bob Carlton
As his drinking buddy Agarwal had recommended (in an effort to stop a drunk Rastogi from jumping off the ledge), Rastogi tried to find the bright side of getting fired.
For one, he wouldn’t have to see his intellectually inept colleagues anymore. Anybody above him was a rich man buying his way upwards; anybody working with him was just someone to bear with until he fought his way to success.
He was sure, for example, that if he had met Joshi in the pub rather than the office, they would have hit it off immediately. But they both had work to do and stomachs to feed (their own, not those of their families; indeed, it was to escape their clingy relatives that they worked as peons in this obscure town). They had competed for the employees’ attention, and Joshi usually won out (probably because he could switch on the A.C., but Rastogi could never master the knack of pressing the correct button). But there were too many complaints against them both.
Rastogi had once tried to get a fan installed in the janitor’s closet by bribing the electrician (who had done it, then tattled on him to earn a raise- it was a selfish world). There was the issue of the office china getting stolen, too. (What could he have done? The cups were just sitting there- it was as if they wanted to be stolen.) Then there was the matter of Rastogi leaving half-eaten snacks in the conference room (he swore that it was Joshi’s deed, and Joshi swore that it was his).
In the end, they were both fired. He kicked the air conditioner spitefully on his way out, then packed his belongings and ran before the boss could charge him for the repairing cost.
Now, Rastogi was headed back to his hometown, but he didn’t have the money to travel. He could have hitchhiked his way by threatening some poor family on a long drive (it turned out that the kind of suitcase he carried was also used by terrorists for suicide bombing), but he found that immoral. He decided to travel by the government's public transport for free, to avenge his great-grandfather, whose property Rastogi could have inherited, but didn’t because of policy reforms (and because his great-grandfather hadn’t included him in his will- but he didn’t know that).
He decided to catch the train which had the longest commute time, because he didn’t want to face his family yet. His uncle had caught a respiratory disease from the mining he did till the age of seventy, and Rastogi was supposed to arrange for the operation money. Rastogi thought it wiser (and cheaper) to avoid him till he passed away or got magically cured.
His plan was to steal the ticket from one of his fellow passengers. Men always kept the ticket in their wallets, right beside spare change. Women kept theirs ‘safely’ in the innermost pocket of their purses, next to their precious jewellery (If you didn’t want to wear it, why carry it around?) It was the most obvious place to hide valuables. If he was lucky, he might even get the change to buy the spicy peanuts whose smell beckoned to him.
He powered off his phone because the landlord was calling him continuously; he had run away without paying the rent, but the servant’s quarters of a haunted flat weren’t exactly what their agreement had entailed. He considered not suing the landlord an innate kindness on his part. He had never disclosed the location of his hometown to the landlord, so he couldn’t trace him once he got there.
Another bright side of getting fired was that he was free to follow worthwhile pursuits.
Ever since he saw an amazing movie at the age of twenty-five, Rastogi had wanted to be a movie director.
He blamed the director of that perfect movie. It was such a brilliant idea: paint drying on a wall, while a boy sang in a frog-like voice. To Rastogi, it symbolized the monotony of life and expressed how he felt while working in the moneylender’s farms, humming a song that no one ever heard.
His family members had left the hall in the first two minutes, mumbling about a waste of money, and preferring to clean the toilets than watch this nonsense; Rastogi watched it all, though. He no longer felt like a useless watermelon seed, which could have grown to form something remarkably productive, but was about to become an undigested part of an avian excretory tract. He felt that he had another purpose in life than transporting manure from the sheds to the fields (Why couldn’t the cows just do their business in the fields like their owner did?). His purpose in the universe was to revolutionize masses, to make them realize that their lives were pointless if they didn’t start living for themselves (He didn’t consider the economic, social and financial problems his message might cause).
He eyed the greasy, middle-aged man next to him distastefully. Had he stopped oiling his hair, the oil industry would have collapsed overnight. Taking his ticket would be a piece of cake: he was too busy looking at his blurred reflection in the window. Or perhaps he was staring blankly, contemplating his purpose in the universe. Rastogi quietly shifted closer to him and extracted his wallet carefully. He smirked when the ticket-collector entered the compartment.
When the ticket-collector asked for his ticket, Rastogi obediently showed it. Then, leaning in conspiratorially, Rastogi whispered, “Sir, I think this man beside me doesn’t have a ticket.”
“No ticket,” the ticket-collector repeated.
It was only when the man was thrown out of the moving train screaming that Rastogi started feeling slightly guilty. But, he reasoned, the man had a little money- well, the amount left in his wallet, anyway. When Rastogi turned to the grimy window, where bored children had left mildly amusing graffiti, he could see the man struggling to keep up with the hurtling train, knocking on its windows desperately. Rastogi’s heart began to melt-
He scratched at the mosquito sucking his blood and turned his back to the window.
The trouble in stealing a ticket from a stranger was that Rastogi didn’t know which station he was getting off at. The ticket he had stolen would take him only halfway. Maybe it was time to utilize his robbery skills again. Reluctantly, he shifted to another compartment, one that the ticket collector hadn’t reached yet. He took a seat beside an old lady with her head wrapped in her shawl. She wouldn’t even notice her purse going missing.
“Nice weather for a journey, isn’t it?” she commented, startling Rastogi. He blabbered something about the climate in his hometown, his hands slowly reaching for her purse. He fingered the leather lovingly, knowing it would take him home. Smiling triumphantly, he ordered tea from a passing vendor.
The old lady reached for her purse, but her hands caught thin air. “Where did my purse go?”
“Oh dear!” Rastogi cried, enjoying himself thoroughly. “Some passing crook must have stolen it.”
“Some passing crook,” the lady repeated. She grinned suddenly, and as her disguise flew off, Rastogi found himself staring into the delighted eyes of the ticket-collector.
Later, as Rastogi sat in jail while the ticket-collector and the bored inspector gossiped, he tried to think about the bright side of getting jailed.
At least he had some free time to think about ideas for his movie.
(c) Ophelia Clare
The floor of the wishing well was covered in coins. Some people had made their wishes on the cheap sacrificing only coppers whilst others had tried to curry favour by flipping pound coins into the clear water. Paul watched as his twenty pence piece sunk to the bottom joining all the other hopes and wishes. How many had been granted? How many had just been wasted coins?
“Penny for them,” said Sarah sidling up alongside him, slipping an arm through his and gazing into the well.
“Can’t afford it,” he replied bitterly.
“What did you wish for?”
“A win. A big one.”
“You should have wished for a change of luck instead.”
“Yeah, like that would happen.”
“Go on, try it,” she urged, producing a fifty pence piece from her purse and offering it to him.
“Even if I wanted to, I’ve already made my wish, remember? I don’t think you get to pick and choose.”
“Then I’ll do it for you.” Sarah leant forward, closed her eyes and dropped the coin into the well. When she opened them again, she was smiling. “There! I’ve wished for you to have some good luck.”
“Thanks,” he muttered. “I’m due that’s for sure.”
“You should learn to be more grateful for what you’ve already got. Anyway, one day things will get better.”
“When I give up gambling you mean?” he snapped.
“I didn’t say that.”
“You didn’t have to.”
“I meant generally, but yes, if you gave up betting, you’d have more money.”
“You know how much I look forward to a few beers with the lads on a Saturday and a punt on the races. I don’t have many pleasures in life.”
“Thanks,” said Sarah, clearly hurt.
Paul rolled his eyes. “You know what I mean. If I could have afforded it, I would have gone with my mates to the races today, but instead I’ve had to make do with a solitary bet at the bookies...”
“And been stuck with me instead? Must be terrible for you?”
He was digging a bigger hole for himself by the minute. “I didn’t mean it like that, you know I didn’t,” he said apologetically.
“Want a bet?” Sarah said caustically. “Oh, wait, you can’t, you’re skint!”
“Very funny! Look, Sarah I…”
“No, you look. I don’t begrudge you your fun, but it’s no longer just Saturdays is it? Now it’s every day of the week and that’s why you’re skint. We’re supposed to be saving for a wedding, remember? It’s all right for your mates, they don’t have any commitments, but you do. Unless…” She let the unasked question hang in the air and prayed she was wrong.
“You know you mean the world to me, Sarah but so does my betting.”
“And I’m not asking you to choose between us, just to show some common sense before it gets out of hand. I don’t want to wake up one morning and find the bailiffs sitting in our lounge.”
“That won’t happen. Anyway, sometimes I come up flush,” he replied indignantly.
“Really? Tell me, when did you last have a decent win, or any sort of win, come to that?”
Paul went to reply but found that in all honesty he couldn’t remember when he’d last broken even, let alone won. He shrugged his shoulders in defeat.
“I’m just having a bad run. My day will come.”
Deciding that she had made her point, Sarah smiled trying to ease the tension. She looked at her watch and saw that it had just passed midday. “Come on, let’s go and eat at that lovely pub we passed on the way here.”
“Sorry, love I wasn’t joking. That literally was my last coin.” He stared longingly down the well wondering whether he could stoop as low as to reach in and snatch a few coins.
“Is that why your dad’s coin collection is in the boot?” she asked accusingly.
Rumbled, he decided to come clean. “I was going to pawn it and ask you if you’d mind me joining the lads this afternoon; they’re going to wait for me at the Red Lion until one o’clock then they’re going to leave for the races,” he replied, unable to meet her angry glare.
“You’re unbelievable! You never had any intention of spending the day with me!” She looked crestfallen.
“I was hoping to do both – spend some time with you this morning and then see the lads this afternoon.”
“You promised me we’d spend the day together.” Her tears were close.
“I know but that was before…”
“Before you came up with the bright idea of pawning the coin collection. Oh, Paul, how could you do that? They were your dad’s pride and joy. You promised to keep them safe.”
He shrugged in resignation. “I know but it’s okay; I’ll buy them back with my next winnings.”
“They’ll be long gone by then,” she laughed humourlessly.
“Maybe, but like I said that was…”
“Your last coin… yes I know. Please, Paul, spend the day with me. I was really looking forward to it.”
“But the lads…”
“Will survive without you this once. Hell, you might even enjoy spending time with me,” she added bitterly.
He looked at her sorrowful expression and realised that he was really hurting her. He was a fool. Still, he had been looking forward to the races. He thought about the coin collection and knew that she was right. If he pawned them, he might never see them again.
“Okay,” he said, offering up a small smile.
“Okay I’ll spend the day with you… if you’ll still have me?” She tried to maintain an angry countenance but couldn’t – instead, she leant forward and kissed him lightly on the lips. “But if the lads phone me later and say they’ve won a fortune I’m never speaking to you again.”
“Sounds fair. Come on – lunch is on me.”
“Uh huh. One of the advantages of having a working fiancée.”
“I don’t deserve you,” he said sliding an arm around her waist.
“No, you don’t, but there’s one condition.”
“You don’t sell your coin collection. You’ll only regret it. Your dad would have been heartbroken if he was still around.” Paul nodded. “Besides, I’ve got a feeling your luck is about to change.”
After one last glance at the wishing well, they made their way over to the car and headed for the pub.
The meal was delicious, and both were nicely relaxed as Sarah drove them home later that afternoon the earlier tension long forgotten, and Paul’s coin collection safely stored in the boot.
“Go on then,” said Sarah smiling, “I can tell you’re dying to.”
“What?” he asked feigning ignorance.
“You know what.”
“Thanks,” he grinned, switching on the radio.
After tuning in to the sports’ station he listened intently as the afternoon’s racing results were read out and cursed when the commentator described how Paul’s horse had fallen at the last fence just when it seemed certain to win. He turned the radio off in disgust.
“Should have wished for a win after all,” he said accusingly.
“You did as I recall.”
“Yes, but your stupid wish probably superseded it – bigger denomination coin and all that.”
“Not sure it quite works that way.”
“Whatever!” he said petulantly.
Sarah was about to bite back when Paul’s mobile rang. He looked at the caller ID and saw that it was one of his friends.
“Great, just what I need – Mark calling to tell me they’ve won a fortune and are retiring to the Bahamas.”
“More like they’re skint and asking to borrow off you.”
He glared at her as he answered the call. “Hi, Mark… What...? Yes… speaking… I do, yes.” As he spoke, he gestured for Sarah to pull over at a lay-by just ahead. “What…? No!” As soon as Sarah pulled over, he climbed out of the car and started pacing about, a worried Sarah close behind him. “How…? Of course… as soon as I get home. Thank you.”
The conversation had been short and stilted.
“What is it, Paul?” Sarah asked anxiously. The colour had drained from his face. He didn’t reply. “Paul?”
“That was St. Margaret’s hospital using Mark’s mobile. The lads were involved in an accident this afternoon not far from the Red Lion. Dave and Stewart… they’re both dead… and Mark’s in intensive care. They can’t get hold of his family but found my number on his phone. They’ve asked me to try and contact his family and tell them what’s happened. They don’t think Mark’s going to make it.”
Tears forming in her eyes, Sarah hurried over to Paul and embraced him as his own tears began to flow. This time it was Sarah who didn’t reply. She was thinking of the wishing well and her wish that he had a change of luck.
It looked like his day had come.
(c) Jeff Jones
The ventilator whirred mechanically, patients’ chests raising as the oxygen pumped through their lungs. Donna stood by the man she had seen intubated hours beforehand. His breath at times steadying momentarily, was a forced gasping rattle. She wondered who he was.
A middle -aged man with greying hairs amongst patchy brown. Quite possibly handsome, asides from the current predicament. His youthful face now drained from the sensation of drowning. He was in the throes of acute respiratory distress syndrome, as a result of the virus. Watching him, Donna’s own breath belaboured beneath her mask.
In a while, she would leave. Haunted by the wondering of how he is doing. Whether he would make it through the night. The process afterward if he did not, she now well knew. A nurse would hold a phone over his dying body and loved ones would watch and wait over the phone until his final lasting breath. His body would be removed then down to the morgue, soon after a private closed casketed funeral. No wake for the mourning. Chapels did not have holy water anymore, they anointed with bottles of hand sanitizer.
She left the room. Standing in the hallway, watching through the window. His pale pallor. His chest. The sound. She could hear the oscillated sounds of the other ventilators all around her. The gasps of each exhale. This had once been the ICU. Then the COVID19 ICU. Now the whole hospital was deemed a Nightingale. They had gone from being outnumbered to now empty beds. Laying in wait for the next case to come.
‘Done for the day, Don?’ Adhibu asked, walking pasted with a file in hand.
With a jolt she shook out of her haze. With a yawn, she nodded. ‘I’ll be on call tonight.’
‘Right,’ he said, waggling a finger. ‘Get some rest, eh?’
‘I’ll try to,’ she said, with a meek smile.
In the changing room, she removed her visor to see the red welts it left on the crown of her head. The warmth of the hospital built sweat inside the latex gloves, heat dripping from the layers under her plastic apron. Peeling her uniform off, she pulled on loose shirt and baggy trousers.
Outside the hospital, she felt the air on her skin and the impending dark night enveloping in. Her eyes adjusting to the dimness finally out from beneath harsh sterile lighting. She stopped in the shop across the road. A line formed outside. It was longer from social distancing and the separation of the crowd. A teenage boy stood guarding the door. She pulled a black mask on. Held up her ID and was let ahead. A man eyerolled over his mask, but she had seen worse. People shouting at NHS workers for skipping the queue. Telling them they were taking the piss. A particularly pointed comment about fat nurses.
Donna grabbed a sandwich, some crisps, a drink and some chocolate. It was too late to order room service and she couldn’t cook in the room. She paid at the self-checkout and left with a plastic bag. On her way back to La Brise Hotel, she did not check her watch. It was a Thursday evening at 8’o clock. The terraced council houses, the balconied flats and the bungalows all had rainbows in their windows. Everyone out in their gardens, checking their watches and then the cheering and the clapping began.
She blushed nervously as she passed, watching them in a curious manner. The people quarantining indoors, self-isolated from the world. They had all lived different experiences of this event. Cancelled weddings, long school holidays, no way to stay with loved ones. The people working from home, furloughed waiting to go back and the people who lost their career in an instant. The people who’d had the virus and those who passed from it. The homes full of elderly suffering with it, nurses unable to leave. The people who lost their homes with their employment. Those to whom staying in was more of a prison, longing for escape. It was the cheers of people who, despite everything, had this ongoing determination to celebrate something. All the lonely people desperate for human connection. The clapping died down, but that was no matter. They would all see one another next week. Eventually, all the neighbours returned inside, keeping way for their own safety. She had to admire that.
She could not think of much else, just the patient etherised upon the bed. She felt her jaw lock, only realising he had been clenching her teeth by the pain lingering when she stopped. The beginning of 2020 seemed like a century ago. Donna rushed through the lobby avoiding eye contact with the receptionists. She worried about the tallying up of her eventual fee once she ended her stay at the hotel which was not in her pay much less in her budget. Shrugging off the financial strife yet more sacrifice. A way to protect her parents by staying away. They, like most people, didn’t understand anyway. She knew from a small bathroom mirror; she had gained wrinkles of experience since.
In the shower, a question resurged and regurgitated in Donna’s thoughts. The occasional remark which lingered. ‘You chose that career.’ ‘It’s your job.’ ‘Isn’t this what you signed up for?’ She blinked. Imagining a cold beach holiday years ago. Standing with her back to the waves. The sand pulling from her feet, tide rolling in, wave engulfing her. She let herself sink. Then coughed, pushing up, breaking the surface. Her eyes red rimmed, she coughed up salt water.
She ate alone, scrolling through her phone. Endless art projects, baking efforts and lockdown gardens of people taking this time for the luxury of hobbies. Read an article about the education system not knowing what to do. She wondered what she would be doing if she were to remain in. Had the course of her life run in another direction. When Donna was fifteen, she had to pick the subjects she would study. From there, determining her A levels, her degree and life prospects. She had hovered over ICT and geography or biology and physics. Weeks in, she missed the programs she would never learn and the ecologies she would never study. Soon she was applying to university. By then it was too late to turn back. She could not decide after the midwinter break of her first year at nursing school she would prefer to learn about the diaspora of peoples or the accessibility for the internet to connect everyone. Instead, her world shrunk to the size of a hospital.
Donna switched off the lights and lay in a bed which was not her own. Gazed up to the stucco white ceiling until her eyes shut. Pulling the quilt over herself. Elapsing into sleep, she dreamt she had finally arrived to the dry land of a distant shore. The phone rang. She woke to start again.
(c) Fiona Murphy-McCormack
It is a mother´s duty to choose her child’s name. And to choose it well. The moment a person is born, the mother can see the path her child will follow, and she must decide on the name accordingly. There’s no use trying to defy Fate – no one can change what’s been written long before a person´s birth.
Fate is not an arbitrary but quite a deliberate master. The one, let’s call him or her Superior Being, God, Destiny, Mother Universe or the Pachamama , who has decided on what will be and what shall not be, is not a mere amateur dabbling in motiveless dry runs but an expert, a Divine Pharmacist allotting slots and vials and boxes for pills - such quantity and chemical composition for some, a different one for others. He or she knows the right formula for every one of us. He or she knows how much and for how long and where to take it.
Of course, we can pretend that things are just as they are supposed to be and maybe we can even fool ourselves for a while. But it’s impossible to fool the Divine Pharmacist who has structured our road. We can hide the pills made for us under the tongue or shut tight the box or the vial, but we won’t be able to fool him, or ourselves, forever.
Sometimes, despite omens that herald a child’s future, parents ignore Fate and choose a name that catches their fancy rather than a name that would fit a baby’s character. And that´s what happened to the Benavides girls from the place where I was born.
My family originally came from an island off the southern coast called the Isla Grande. It is big and long with hills overgrown with raulies trees native to that region. It was the last place the cruel Spanish conquistadors invaded, the last one to resist their fierce clutches. Its shores are windswept and rough, but the interior is lush with rivers full of trout and overgrown with forests teeming with wildlife. The sea around the Isla Grande is ravaged by whirlpools and deadly currents. Many of the islanders lost their husbands to the cold embrace of the water. My father was among them. I must have been ten or eleven when it happened, but I can still remember my mother sitting on the shore looking at the horizon, hoping that a white sail would appear and announce my father’s safe return. But he never came back. The sea swallowed him together with the rest of the crew and the boat. Some said that it was not the sea at all but the Cahuelche, a dolphin-like creature that inhabits the deep waters around the Isla Grande. They say that in the past, the Cahuelche was a real man but was punished for his sins and sent to the confines of the ocean where he yearns for the company of other humans and that´s why he sinks fishermen´s boats to keep him company.
It was around the time of my father´s disappearance that my mother told me the story of the Benavides sisters, or the Three Cardinal Sins, as people called them. And it shows that like in everything else, parents can go terribly wrong if they defy Fate.
The Benavideses were the richest farmers for hundreds of miles around, far wealthier than the hacendados from the Argentinean pampas, their land more fertile than all the farms of the country put together and they owned more heads of cattle than the herds that roam the icy steppes down south.
Hernan Benavides married a city girl, the worst choice for a farmer, if you ask me. Raised in the capital, used to balls and carriages drawn by six horses, Carmen Benavides was too haughty to bother with the islanders. They lacked sophistication. Their language was too simple for her, their customs too vulgar.
Three daughters were born of the union and to satisfy her fancy, or maybe she was following the custom she had read about in one of her French romances, Carmen named the girls after flowers: Rosa, Margarita and Dalia.
Rosa was a creature of extraordinary beauty - red lips, milky complexion, hair like an anthracite river. But she lacked humility and patience. If her shoes were not shiny enough, her tea too cold, if a kitchen noise woke her up too early in the morning, there was always some poor serving wench who had to pay for it - Rosa saw to the punishment personally, always encouraged by her mother. She liked it the best when the whip drew blood.
Margarita, the prettiest of the three, was incurably lazy. She would not leave the bed for anything. She’d stay there for days eating, reading, and the maid had to carry the chamber pot to her so that she could relieve herself. Even the Sunday Mass was not worth the effort of getting up. Nothing could force her to drag her body out of bed.
But the worst of the three was Dalia. She had inherited her mother’s city manners and her father’s country inflexibility.
When the Benavideses died in the year of the Great Plague (which they say killed millions on the five continents) Dalia, who was the oldest, was left in charge of the farm and the household.
Pretty and rich, the girls did not lack suitors who flocked from far and near, from towns and villages, even from the Great Country of the North where yellow-haired men eat buffalo meat, wear wide-brimmed sombreros, carry pistols in bullet-studded belts and call themselves cowboys. But they wouldn’t do for Dalia, not a single one, oh no. The Benavides pride was too great. This one was too ugly, another too poor, still another not slim enough. Many came and went turned away by Dalia’s pride and her unreasonable expectations.
So the girls stayed alone; servants, fed up with ill-treatment, left; the land, unploughed for years, turned to dust, money seeped away, and the house looked as if a smallest breeze would tumble it down. The girls withered and turned ugly. Surrounded by hens nesting in cupboards and larders, pigs that rooted for food in the kitchen and died of old age in the bedrooms, the girls strutted among the ruins in their finery that by now was nothing more than rags. Inside and out the place was draped with cobwebs, the roof moss-eaten and crumbling, paths choked by weeds, windowpanes sealed over with grime.
Margarita died first and so lazy were her sisters that they left her body, now fat and bloated, to rot for a full week until the stench became unbearable and flies laid eggs in the corpse and bred with the speed of lightning. They finally dumped her in the pigsty where her flesh fell of the bones and the skeleton turned yellow.
After Rosa had gone, Dalia lingered for a year or two haunting the empty house, scavenging for food, fighting for it with whatever dogs remained. She passed away one morning missed and mourned by nobody.
But that’s not the end of the story, oh no. Death had no mercy on the Three Cardinal Sins. There was no peace for them in their graves. At night, when the moon bloomed like a daffodil on the pastures of the sky the spirits of the wretched girls roamed the countryside begging for help. There was no place for them in the Land of Eternal Rest until they repented for their sins.
Rosa carried a whip, begging travellers to flog her until her body bled, to punish her the same way she had punished others. Margarita offered to scrub doorsteps with her long hair and sweep autumn leaves that kept falling making her job a never-ending task. And Dalia...Dalia searched for a lover - the poorest of paupers, the ugliest of men, a dwarf with webbed feet and harelip to take to her lonely bed.
My mother saw the Benavides sisters many times and, as far as I know, they still haunt the Isla Grande unable to rest.
The candle flames fitfully dapple the walls, slide down from the ceiling to the floor drawing bars of light and ghostly silhouettes. The fire in the hearth has settled into an amber glow, sparks burst forth from the hearth bringing me back from the fantastic to the real world. I look at the little girl sitting next to me - her head is resting on the table, she is silent, the breathing coming out in regular puffs. Her cheeks are pink, and the long black lashes casts shadows on her face. She´s asleep.
“And that is why, my baby, the name I´ve chosen for you comes neither from pride nor from strange customs. Because I respect Fate and the Devine Pharmacist´s will. I´ve named you Gloria - not because I have glorious hopes for you but because day after day I bask in the glory of motherhood and want to preserve the feeling for ever,” I whisper and watch the sleeping child with infinite love.
(c) JB Polk
'Most' was tucked up in the left-hand corner of the sign, as a small threat in an otherwise accepting culture of Sweetgum County. Rainbow flags were flying, head shops with glass-cock inspired pipes, and BCD oil was readily for sale. Enough candles to set the wood constructed historic town ablaze, all nestled in and around the grounded glass front establishment. If a fire broke out, the shops, inns, and homes stamped on top of each other like Lego bricks would be consumed quickly, leaving only the tortuous layers of limestone foundations, worn and jagged to the end. The mixed scents of the many candle and soap shops would melt into an aftermath headache.
"Let's get married," Moira pulled at David's sleeve.
"We are married."
He was striving for his tone of finality, the one he used with the kids, but there was a breeze of willing persuasion at his sentence's tail end. Moira tugged him towards the building with an unusual sign. As they neared, they saw recreated photos in 8x10 to 11x14 pasted up in the windows. Every picture featured a child, or a whole family decked out in mid-western late 1800s costume. A smaller sign on the front door beckoned olde tyme daguerreotypes inside. Moira and David paused but soldiered on in as the oddity of the situation unfurled.
"Excuse me, what does "most" marriages performed mean?" Moira asked.
"We do Christian marriages. No Catholic or Buddhist ceremonies," said the woman in her early 50s with long gray hair and a wrapper of fat around her middle. She delivered her sentence with conviction and a hallmark of challenge.
This wasn't offensive to Moira and David personally, but it was repugnant. They exited Judge Roy's shop without a renewal of vows or a staged daguerreotype featuring Moira working in a women's oldest profession and David as a bank robber. Suddenly, all the smiling photos, babies included, were sporting a sinister grin that crept off their faces and wielded a decided slice through humanity, cleaving the decency they thought to protect in half, felled onto the floor of bigotry. As tourists, Moira and David dutifully walked and climbed through each store. Peeling away at the most common characteristic of humanity, hypocrisy. Stores that carried hand carved crosses also featured tintype signs of hate speech.
The Marshalls scrutinized this historic old town of Sweetgum County. A series of checks and balances blistered their tongues in the conversation's stagnant air; they sat asunder the noonday Sun drinking their lemonade measuring their ethics against this hodgepodge town. Should they leave? Should they inquire about a few ounces of pot? How did the extremely left liberal shopkeepers live in communion under the dense cloud front of bigotry? Two shops further down, Moira bought a fig and milk brick of soap. It was big enough to hurl through a plate glass window.
Moira and David's stop in Historic Downtown Sweetgum was premature. They'd not yet registered at The Matterhorn Motel. Upon arrival, their parenting kicked in gear at the awakening just seven steps away from their motel door. With no lifeguard present, Moira looked over her shoulder at the children's baptism in the pool. Two little boys and a girl, all tweens, like their children, joyfully took turns dunking one another and making underwater passes.
As David unlocked the red wooden door with a sizeable window covered in a dingy cotton curtain, Moira and David stepped inside the closet size vestibule and were greeted with three more doors. Per the chatty motel manager's directions, they ignored the entrance to the right, the one straight ahead, and turned their attention to the left where there was a paint flaked white wooden door. Their suitcases drug across the overly plush rose-colored carpet that ran wall to wall, including the toilet and jacuzzi. The room was musty, and it looked like Great Grandma Marshall's meets Bed, Bath, and Beyond clearance. The white woodwork was painted on thick, the kind you could absent-mindedly pick and chip. Given the age of the room, Moira decided lead paint was a definite possibility. There was no headboard, just a gap butted up near a well-covered window. One nightstand was claimed by David for his C-PAP. His obesity had rendered him unto the services of the C-PAP. He was actively trying to lose weight, and he had made a steady decline to 250 lbs.
The room was a pale greenish-yellow in most places. It was clear that the room was painted with the furniture intact. Dovetails of white peeked out from the edges of the furniture. There was a wall and a 1/3 covered with tile where the jacuzzi tub was framed in with scraps of a darker board. The telltale sign of thickness exuded grout, which betrayed the secret of long-leaning plumbing problems. Moira knelt down to check the mattresses for bedbugs. Stalwart by a black pillow-top Serta mattress, which proved to be too soft with the arrival of the morning and aching lower backs. The coffeemaker didn't work. The floor space at the foot of the bed was covered with an overly sizable beige rug framed in white. Its position reeked of concealment. What was under the rug? The Marshalls decided ignorance was best and left the suspicious rug in its conspicuous spot. They wedged into the jacuzzi and watched SNL from across the room. David watched head-on, while Moira viewed in the Mirror. It was impossible to turn the TV to a volume that could carry over the tub's jets and the a/c. As crappy as the room was, Moira and David would not let it come between them. It was their 20th anniversary.
The affection in the jacuzzi had to relocate to the bed. Moira and David were collectively too big to make a go of it in the tub's water rinsing lubricant. As they gained weight over the years, various positions were eliminated due to feasibility issues and what Moira felt had become unflattering positions. The latter of these could be performed in an adequately dark room. Moira had stopped giving head as David's girth increased. But now she attempted to give him a blow job on the ugly room's aquatic-themed, king-sized bed. Her forehead made a soft smack sound every time it met his low hanging gut. It was a small sick sound like one of their children vomiting in the car on the way to Great Grandma Marshall's house.
The sexual reunion did little to erase the mark between them. Each of them uneasy and carrying the crowded room that had become their daily life. The Marshalls cut their trip short. David continued to mentally revisit Moira's death grip, and right foot plant on the floorboards with every hairpin turn into Sweetgum. Moira didn't mean her death grip and stomping, pumping of an invisible break as a commentary on David's driving. She had a death grip on most things in life. Moira fervently clung to all her loved ones; thus, choking her family and friends out of her life.
As they drove away from the cliff-based historic downtown of Sweetgum, every recognizable store, made it harder and harder to breathe. They saw the ordinary Wal-mart and McDonald's. Icons of both the country setting and home. It was too much. It was a long-distance reminder of home, the grocery shopping, the fast food on busy nights of softball and baseball, and the never-ending commitments to everyone and everything, but them. David turned the car around at a Dickey-Hub's and picked-up speed back toward the Matterhorn, the outlander of Sweetgum's historic downtown. With the advent and passing of a Kum and Go gas station, David increased his speed. Moira kept her hands in check in her lap, no clinging to the door this time.
As the Matterhorn rose over the ridge, they could breathe deeper and cleaner than they ever could at home. Bowed heads, they returned and asked for their room back, never mind the room had yet to be cleaned. It was their own filth. Moira and David had returned to the musty, shaggy room with the gurgling window unit and disrobed. The closed curtains in full daylight, let in plenty of light. Moira and David had a renewal of their wedding night. The tender touch, coupled with the forceful thrusts, led Moira and David back to a time before their marriage was a performance for the kids, the family, the community. They were blissfully alone in their union.
(c) Leah Holbrook Sackett