Showing posts with label Booklet 1. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Booklet 1. Show all posts

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Grasses by Alex Barr

 In the garden were deep shadows. The bay tree with its rounded foliage was shaded like a moon, the bright half luminous. Glowing leaves shone among complex drifts of dark. The lawn was so bright the colour was washed out. The sun threw a cruel spotlight through the grime on the kitchen window.

A time to be out of doors . . . but this was Inspection Day, and the memory of happy days in the sun was a taunt. Maria, her back to Steve, scrubbed savagely at the worktop with a ragged green scourer. Her movements and the set of her shoulders filled him with dread. But dread of what?
‘Well you certainly messed up, didn’t you?’ she said suddenly, still not facing him.
‘What do you mean?’
Immediately he wished he hadn’t spoken in that higher-than-normal tone like a man on trial.
‘How long did you spend on that job you quoted the café for?’
Now at least he knew what had been brewing.
‘Too long, yes! I didn’t know the panels were warped.’
‘Because you didn’t bloody well store them properly! That’s typical of you, Steve, typical.’
She turned and glared at him. He wondered how a face that could soften at the height of lovemaking or brighten with laughter at some joke could harden to a mask of anger. How the mouth he had often kissed could jut with hate like the spout of a gargoyle. How could he feel love for such a monster?
Typical? Was he always careless? If he was, that it was how he was made, the fault was preordained and he wasn’t really to blame. But no point saying that. In fact nothing he could say would help. But plenty wouldn’t. He realized what he dreaded was letting fly with abuse: ‘I’m so bloody tired of your filthy moods and endless abuse, Maria.’ He stayed silent, humiliated by appearing weak. And braced himself for more.
‘So for a whole week’s work you earned next to nothing. Pathetic.’
He longed to relax and watch a football match, a reassuring saga of missed chances and fluffed shots, of losers saying, ‘We did our best but yeah, our best wasn’t good enough.’
‘Yes, for once I took my eye off the ball,’ he said quietly.
‘And look at the filth in this kitchen. Two hours till she comes. Don’t just bloody well stand there! Mop the floor.’
Steve clamped his teeth together to stop something vile emerging, and filled a blue plastic bowl with hot water. The splashing sound, the cheap-perfume smell of the cleaning fluid, calmed him a little. He listened to the chafing of the mop sponge and counted floor tiles – one done, another done, another. One day all this would be over. Over! Perhaps by then he would have left to live alone. But then those hands angrily scrubbing the hob would be locked in the small of someone else’s back, and would that be worse than this? It would.
‘Squeeze the mop out properly,’ Maria suddenly hissed.
Steve burst out laughing. It was all so ridiculous, like an old-fashioned slapstick film. He pulled the lever to close the plastic jaws to compress the sponge. The trickling of water into the bowl was like someone peeing in a bucket. He laughed again and said in a pretend posh accent, ‘I will squeeze it, I will,’ and waited for her angry comment, but she was silent.
He finished the task and stood the mop on end in the cupboard, its blank yellow sponge face level with his own, each pore very clear with its tiny shadow, like the shadows among the leaves of the bay tree, except that in the cupboard there was no sun. The blue bowl when he emptied it felt very firm and smooth, very real, with a highlight along one of the inner curves. Were the shadows inside it black, or just a darker blue?
‘Shall I vacuum the stairs?’ he asked, then once again hated his uncertain tone with its hint of weakness.
Maria said nothing, stooping to wipe a low cupboard door, the centre parting in her dark russet hair not quite straight. Steve pictured her as a child.
‘I’ll vacuum the stairs,’ he said gruffly.
The whine of the motor, the hiss of suction, were what he needed to counter the noise – it seemed like noise – of the sun beating on the landing window. But the process was unsatisfactory and annoying. The brush attachment didn’t poke into corners and left a trail of grit which stood out against the light cream of the carpet. The annoyance was familiar from occasions when a rusted screw resisted being removed. The sense of righteous injustice was almost rewarding.
The job has to be imperfect because life is imperfect, he told himself. His innards felt tense. He tried to imagine what Maria was doing, what other shortcomings she would be finding in their life together, what she would say when he put the vacuum cleaner away and joined her. But when he did she was making coffee. And surprisingly, there were two mugs.
‘She’ll do her inspection and say I’m not fit to be a child minder,’ she said. But in a lighter voice than before.
‘No, she won’t.’
‘What do you know?’ she countered, but still in the same tone.
‘Not a lot.’
‘If you earned more,’ she went on dully, as if bored by her own protest, ‘I wouldn’t be having to do it.’
Steve had thought they were now on safe ground, and the unexpected switch back to resentment unsettled him. He nearly growled, ‘Shut the fuck up and change the record,’ but despite the lack of warning stifled the words just in time. He took a deep breath and waited for things to move on.
After a pause, taking care to keep a neutral tone, he said, ‘I think I’ll take my coffee outside.’
He wondered whether his tone really had sounded neutral, or whether Maria would think it huffy. He was already in the doorway when she spoke.
‘I’ll join you.’

*

The sun! Its touch on his face and arms! He closed his eyes and hugged the heat of the coffee mug to his chest.  The green wooden seat was almost too small for two, so they were crammed side by side between its armrests. Maria’s thigh felt soft. Her bare arm against his was hot and sticky.
            In the small garden they drank in silence. A sparrow lighted on the bird feeder, turning its dark-crowned head up and down and side to side with comical jerks. It saw them and flew off. A magpie went over, very crisp in its blue, black, and white, its tail straight out like a parakeet’s.
            Maria got up and walked along the small curving path edged with oak offcuts from Steve’s workshop. He joined her. Looking at their plants was a luxury there was rarely time for. Maria pulled out long grasses from among the ornamental leaves. Steve tried to gauge her mood, but the curtain of her hair obscured her profile, and her mouth, slightly open as if in surprise, gave little away.
            He too pulled out grasses. They were easy to spot, as green as the swords of the irises, the soft tubes of the chives, and the poppy leaves with their scalloped edges, but standing straight like wires. Unlike the short paired leaves of the sweet Williams, their long narrow leaves sprouted singly at steep angles at hands-breadth intervals, some folded over and fluttering like tiny banners. And the seed heads – ah, familiar from childhood. Strip the seeds and you were left with a thin serrated fuse you could wind in a friend’s hair to get a satisfying squeal of protest. In a black bucket, which lacking another they were forced to share, they collected the grasses. Which were easy to pull, not breaking like hawkweed or resisting like dandelions, trailing hair-like roots as they came free of the earth.
            Unseen inside in the kitchen the mopped floor dried. The vapours of household chemicals diffused and diminished. A fly on the window buzzed its last, tumbled through the fleshy leaves of a money plant, and became a black speck on the black soil of the pot. The red second hand of the round clock on the wall swept its slow circuit.
Steve and Maria pulled steadily side by side, each watching the other for the cue to go back indoors. It would have to be soon. Sometimes their hips bumped and they smiled, sharing the naughty charm of playing truant. And all the time the sun poured its blessing. It had sent the rays that warmed them several minutes before, but this was the present, their present, and like lizards basking on a rock or butterflies resting with extended wings, they absorbed its power for the undertakings ahead. There would be other fights, other times to weed out grasses.

© Alex Barr

The Change by Liz Berg

“Does it hurt?”
“What?”
“The change. Does it hurt?” Sam’s pointed face peered up at his buddy Abel.
Abel frowned. Then his brow cleared.
“Oh, right. Yes, I think it does. You needn’t worry for some time. Not until you are at least fourteen or fifteen.”
“Eighteen. It’s eighteen.” Sam was positive. He trotted alongside Abel as they walked towards the park. This was his favourite journey, Abel’s blue eyes twinkling, his shaved head giving him a panther look.
Sam felt the buzz in his chest. He yipped with pleasure. Abel guided him over to the adventure playground.
“Take it off.”
“Magic word, Sam?”
“Please. Take it off please.”
Abel released the wrist band.
Sam ran around the apparatus, checking for anything new, anything changed. Satisfied, he raced over to the rope netting, flinging himself upwards. As he reached the top, he let out his special howl. His chest could burst now and he’d be happy.
Perched on the A frame Sam peered for Abel. Abel wasn’t at his usual seat on the bench, facing the net. Sam swivelled, his heart beating furiously. He homed in on a shining pate. Abel was by the monkey puzzle tree, talking to someone.
The stranger was stocky. Sam reckoned he worked out. He wore blue jeans and a blue denim jacket. A black baseball hat hid his face. Sam’s super keen senses told him he didn’t like the man. Abel didn’t either by his sudden arm movements. The man left abruptly.
Whining in relief, Sam began to slow his heart rate as he’d been taught. He crawled across the net and continued his tour of the apparatus, constantly checking Abel’s whereabouts.
Later, Abel called, “Come, Sam, it’s time to go.”
Sam bounded over, huffing as the wrist band snapped in place. Sam hated it, but since that scary time, Abel wouldn’t take him without it. Sam tried to walk on all fours. Abel pulled him upright a little too sharply.
“Ow!” He licked his wrist.
“Sorry, Sam.” Abel apologised. “I wasn’t thinking.”
Usually, the walk home was punctuated by a stop at the café for a hot chocolate followed by a visit to the art shop. Abel was teaching Sam to draw. This time Abel took Sam straight home.
Sam knew better than to ask about the stranger. Abel was his buddy, his friend. Friends didn’t ask questions as if they were at the doctors. Sam knew a lot of doctors. He hated the way they spoke to him, trying to syrup their way into his brain. Their talk full of jagged edges when they spoke to his mother. Mum often cried after a visit.
Abel didn’t chat to Sam’s mother this time. No waving when he reached the corner either.
“Mum, say you knew something.”
“What do you mean? Something good… bad…which, Sam?”
Sam’s mother brushed her straight black fringe with the back of one hand. Sam liked the way it moved to a point over her left eye. He also liked the lines she had shaved into the right side of her head. He could tell her moods by the colour she painted them. Today it was a mellow lilac. When she was pink, she roared around the house like a whirlwind. Sam stayed out of her way then.
“Umm. I don’t know … just thinking.” Sam tried wriggling. He lay on the floor and squirmed across the kitchen, then rolled over and jumped up. A yip escaped.
Sam dreamt about prowling around the stranger’s ankles. He bared his fangs. The smell of the man’s fear was strong. Good. Hackles lowered; Sam snuffled into his chest.

A few days later Sam walked tidily beside Abel, without trying to run away. Abel in turn, removed the wrist strap without asking. When Sam didn’t zoom off checking the apparatus, Abel sat with him on the bench.
“What’s the matter, Sam?”
“Nothing.” Sam hung his head.
“Listen to me Sam. I can’t help you unless you tell me. That’s what being a buddy means. Anything you tell me is between us, unless someone is going to get hurt.” Abel’s voice had taken on the patient tone of a teacher. Sam remembered the last time he’d heard that tone. He hadn’t been back to school since.
“What is it, Sam?” Abel’s voice cut into his thoughts. “Can I help you?”
“Can I help you?” Sam echoed. “I’ll bite him for you. I’ll jump on his back and claw him.”
“Who? And don’t bite anyone or jump on their back.”
“The man in the park.” Sam shook Abel’s jacket. “The one you talked to. The man in blue.”
“Oh, Sam,” Abel was rueful. “You don’t have to fight my battles for me. He’s nothing to worry about.”
“But you are worried. In my anger management class, they tell you take deep breaths and work out how your body feels. If you can’t control yourself, find a special place to be. Have you a special place, Abel?”
“No, Sam. I’ve not needed one.”
“Not even with that man?”
“No, Sam, not even with him. You can’t go around getting angry with people. It doesn’t help.”
“But you were angry. I saw you. You waved your arms at him,” insisted Sam.
“Leave it, Sam. Let’s go and enjoy ourselves, eh?” Abel walked towards the jungle gym. “Let’s see how a werewolf climbs these bars. “
Sam didn’t move. He crossed his arms and put his head down. A noise halfway between a growl and a humph sounded in his throat. Abel touched his shoulder; Sam shook him off. “Sometimes, Sam, you can’t help. Sometimes things are private.”
He didn’t react to the wrist strap, refused hot chocolate and lagged behind all the way home.
Sam checked his mother’s stripes. Orange. It might be the best time to talk to her. She wouldn’t remember tomorrow.
“Mum, is Abel okay?”
“I’m sure he is, bab. He didn’t seem poorly. Have your tea and then you can have fifteen minutes on your PlayStation.”
“I don’t mean ill, Mum. I mean like me.” Sam talked as his mother followed him into the kitchen.
“No one’s like you, Sam.” Mum put his tea in front of him.
Sam picked up a fork. He tried again. “I saw Abel angry the other day.”
“He’s allowed to get angry, bab. Sit at the table to eat, Sam. Don’t wander with food on your fork.”
He bent his head like a werewolf, eating very fast. He licked his paws and slurped at his drink. It was a long time till next Thursday.

Abel was late. Sam ranged back and for. The bell rang, startling him.
Abel held out his hand. Sam slipped in a paw. Safe. Even with the wrist strap. He bounced along, content.
“It’s Thursday, isn’t it? Mum’s stripes are blue today. That’s good. Have you ever put blue stripes on your head?” He grinned at Abel who grinned back.
“You seem happy today. Any particular reason?”
“No…just am.”
They followed their usual routine. Sam bounded from one piece of apparatus to another, trying out his werewolf moves on them all.
“Sam, about the man,” Abel called, “It’s all worked out now.” Sam stilled on the A frame. Then he swung down and loped over to Abel. He approached him carefully, sniffing at the air to scent out any unfamiliar smells, finding only Abel’s aftershave, woody and pleasant.
“He’s my brother. He’s been away. He came back to ask me to go into… business.” Abel paused and looked straight at Sam.
Sam’s heart beat faster. Abel was leaving him. He was going to be with his brother. Sam’s eyes grew bright. He remembered his dream. He would fight Abel’s brother for him. Blood roared in his ears, drowning out the rest of what Abel was saying.
Abel caught hold of him and held him firmly. Sam squirmed in his grasp.
“I’m not going away, Sam. I’m not going away,” repeated Abel until the boy lay shuddering in his arms.
“I told my brother he had to work on his own. I wasn’t going to help him this time. I told him, I was your buddy and that came first.”
Sam’s ears pricked up. His heart rate slowed; the pounding lessened.
“I couldn’t leave you. Not after all we’ve gone through. It would break my heart. I told him…”
“What did you tell him, Abel?” whispered Sam.
“I told him… I told him I’d changed. It’s taken you to do it, but I have finally changed. It wasn’t easy.”
“Did he believe you?”
“That’s what took so long. I had to make him understand. He did in the end. When I showed him how much it had hurt to change.”
“It doesn’t hurt now, does it, Abel?” Sam touched his cheek, gently.
Abel smiled. “No, Sam. Like I told you before, change hurts only while you’re going through it.”
Abel stood up, putting the wrist strap in his pocket.
“How about a hot chocolate then?”


© Liz Berg

Trapped by Patricia Cole

 Point your toe.

So, I pointed my toe, daintily clad in black ballet flat shoes, smiled to my partner and on the correct beat of the music bounced into the opening reel.

It was an unusually warm summer evening and the crowds were out in force to take advantage of the weather.
My white dress was beautifully made by my seamstress mother. I felt it caress my nylon clad legs as I executed perfect steps totally in unison with my kilted partner.

The Fraser tartan sash pinned to my shoulder with a Scottish cairngorm brooch, streamed out behind me as we danced.

Cameras clicked and flashed as we floated gracefully over the stage.

I was born to dance.

Lift your arms one by one.

It was competition time and after endless waiting around we were on the stage giving our all.

We circled as a chain; giving first one hand and then the other as we met and passed. Always smiling even when my mouth was dry as dust and my heart was hammering.

Had we done enough to win; of course, we had. It was almost a foregone conclusion that we would be the winning team, but each time it was an enormous thrill.

I was born to dance.

Now lift both arms.

We circled; arms held out. Clasping hands and doing little slipping side steps in perfect time with the music. Eight steps one way then eight steps the other.

Some of the men had sweaty horrible hands but one must keep smiling and enjoy the dry firm grip of the others.

From the circle into a wheel never pausing, never sagging, never looking anything but perfect.

Beautiful poise, beautiful footwork, beautiful smiles.

I was born to dance.

Now push your weight into your heel.

Oh, the quickstep. I was in his arms; he was leading me firmly with his hand holding me firmly on my waist; our hips glued together while our upper bodies leaned slightly back.

The tulle in my skirt sailed and swung round my knees and my feet looked elegant in stiletto heels.

I loved it; it was splendid being swirled around the floor by my handsome man who looked ever so superior in his tailcoat.

We sailed across the floor – slow, slow, quick, quick, slow my body moved automatically to the rhythm.
We executed a few fancy steps as we turned in the corner and then, once more, we were floating on air. The perfect duo in perfect harmony.

I was born to dance.

Now can you turn?

Can I turn? No problem. Jiving was my forte.

I spun under the outstretched arm of my boyfriend; he whirled me round, caught my hand expertly and turned me the other way.

Could I turn; you bet I could turn.

My cotton dress was cinched in at my tiny waist with yards and yards of skirt flowing down to my calves. My many petticoats had been soaked in sugar water till they could stand up on their own. I knew they would play havoc with my stockings but tonight it didn’t matter.

My ponytail, caught up with a bright red bow, brushed my cheeks as it swung first one way then the other.

I knew my swirling skirts were showing the tops of my stockings but that was no problem; no shrinking violet me!

Buddy Holly, Adam Faith, Cliff Richard bring them on.

I was born to dance.

Can you stamp your feet?

Cha cha cha.

My hips swung, my upper body and arms moved in time to the music; all bright colours and smouldering looks.

Oh yes, I could stamp with the best of them.

Latin American knee length skirts, daringly low tops, black stockings and patent leather shoes.

I was born to dance.

 Turn your hips.

I twisted along to Chubby Checker singing encouragement. It’s like drying your back with a towel. The only problem was that you never made contact with your partner and I longed for a slow smoochy waltz, when our bodies pressed close together, we circled the floor; my head on his shoulder, his arm round my waist; Englebert Humperdinck singing the Last Waltz.

I threw myself into every sort of dance with gay abandon. The music would lift my very soul. My feet would easily learn the steps and my body moved instinctively in time with the beat.

I was born to dance.

 That’s it for today, Mrs Brown.

I’m jolted back to the present.

I’ve been creaking through an exercise session for the elderly. I’m trapped in this old useless body but not my mind. My mind is free to roam, to remember and to dance again.

© Patricia Cole

Hilarity Paling by Alex Bestwick

The candy cane stripes twirled to the tent’s peak overhead. An opening there admitted a column of moonlight, shot down into the sand pit below. Hillary peered out from backstage, watching the crowd filter in and the excitement mount. It grew in her too, the compulsion to leap into the ring and get started as strong as when she had first begun, all those years ago. When the tent flaps finally closed and the tiers of seating were packed, the noise and chatter swelled, and the air thickened with sugar of candyfloss and popcorn. Anticipation coated every corner and crany of the tent before exploding from that hole at the top of the tent like lava from a volcano, an irresistible call to the night and any who may be around to hear it… run away to the circus.In the day, she stood in the ring as Hillary, greying, wrinkles just past the point one could call “laughter lines.” At night, in the cold spotlight of the moon, the heat of the artificial lights and the closely packed bodies, she became a different person, a freer person. A clown, a jester. She was Hiccups. Plastered in colours, orange, pink and blue, she demanded that all turn and look. What Hiccups did then was near limitless - it only had to be funny. She danced and screamed and threw herself around the ring, sometimes she jumped the barrier and galumphed into the crowd. She balanced herself on top of a ball and rolled around the ring and when she fell the laughter only heightened. It rang and pealed like bells, and the faster she went the higher it rose, into a never-ending wave of shrill hilarity.
But the act had to end and then the laughter would die. Hiccups longed to give them more, even as she stood panting, with sweat melting off her make-up. The crowd adored her, and she adored them for it. And each day came a new crowd, a new place - the circus never stayed put for long. With almost 30 years spent travelling with the circus, the inconsistency fit familiarly, suiting Hillary just fine. Until there came a change Hillary was not prepared for.
One day Hillary applied her usual make-up, wrinkles brushed away under swathes of white paint and great, glittering pink stars over each eye. The brush in her hand was thick with red paint when the circus manger, Stephon, appeared beside her reflection. He was a tall man, dark-skinned and elaborately moustached. Ambition alone seemed to hold the ends of that moustache at its impossible peak, and ambition held Stephon himself upright too.
Hillary paused, brush hovering over her lips, to watch him in the mirror but he didn’t say a word. Instead Stephon winked and, just as he did when introducing her act, held out one arm. A sense of something heavy settled in Hillary’s chest, lodging like a bad cough. And a man bounded into the reflection, each of his bouncing steps tousling his red hair. Then he bowed so low that those curls were all Hillary saw of him. Back very straight, she turned slowly from the mirror to face the two men.
“This,” Stephon said, “is Henry. Your new partner.”
“Pleased to meet you,” said Henry. Hillary could not reply, only stare at Stephon. He read her expression, and dismissed it, “The public love you. If they love one clown, imagine how much they’ll love two!”
Hillary nodded and painted on a smile as she turned to Henry. His lips tugged up into a grin and Hillary’s lips twitched too, into something more genuine.
“Nice to meet you.”
“Hiya, partner,” he said.
“I have a whole new routine planned,” Stephon said. “I think you’ll love this new direction. Now, finish your makeup and we’ll get to work!”
Henry threw himself down in front of the mirror beside her and plastered his face with white paint before Hillary even remembered she was still holding a brush.
“We,” Henry said, painting his own smile with a dramatic sweep of red, “are going to have so much fun!”
At first, the new partnership worked well. Henry’s energy reinvigorated something in Hillary she hadn’t realised had begun to deflate. They seemed to match each other, meeting in the air and bouncing off of one another, higher than ever. Henry would stand on his tip toes on top of a rolling ball, pretending to wobble and fall, and Hillary would leap from her platform to land with perfect form on his head, one leg in the air, perfect balance. The crowd loved it. It was more than a performance, it was a work of art. But, night after night, city after city, Hillary felt a shift. When she took her final bow, the crowd clapped, but when Henry took his they leapt to their feet and cheered. Their awe was not for her balancing on Henry’s head, but for him, doing nothing but holding her there.
Over a month had passed since Henry’s arrival. The reviews raved, and the crowds grew bigger and bigger, the applauds louder. Stephon had never been happier. Only Hillary felt unhappiness gnawing in her chest. Applause had once fuelled her, but now she dreaded them. No matter what, no matter how loud and exhilarating, a moment later Henry would bow, and Hillary was forgotten, dwarfed to insignificance.
It didn’t matter what she did, the audience only had eyes for Henry. They screamed with laughter as he danced among them, sitting himself down next to an older woman and bursting into his elaborate pantomime, flirting, fumbling. Hillary found herself alone in the ring, left in the dust his hilarity kicked up, left on the ground while Henry rose, up, up, on their cheers.
But tonight she planned to rise higher. Henry had his routine and he performed it masterfully, step by step, night after night. Hillary would do something new, something nobody would expect. She needed their laughter. The well of it stored inside her had run completely dry and her foundations were beginning to crack, leaking their emptiness into her. She would reclaim it. There was no other option. So Hillary stood at the edge of the ring and took a deep, shuddering breath.
She ran. Her feet kicked up the dust of the ring. Ahead loomed a springboard, above it a hoop. Hillary would arch through the air with a perfect twirl and pass right through the hoop. Then she would land, balanced only on her fingertips. After that, who knew? All she needed was their attention – once she had it she would not let go.
She saw it so clearly, almost as though it had already happened. But then she placed her foot wrong, one tiny mistake, and she slipped. The ground was hard, and cold. Blinding pain jarred through her hip and curled her up into herself, whimpering, unable to move. Nobody laughed, not even a cruel laugh at her failure – every face was still enchanted by Henry. Nobody even saw. Except Stephon.
Hillary was not good enough. She had passed her prime, and it was time to hand on the baton. Hillary was no Henry. She lacked his energy, that unnatural, undying, racked up vivacity which animated his every movement. Hillary could never compare.
Stephon did not say these words; he didn’t have to. “Perhaps it’d be easier on you to take a little step back. Let Henry do the hard work. Take care of your health,” he said, as though doing her a kindness. As though his words weren’t tearing her soul from her. “How about we set you up selling tickets out front?” he said, the way you might hand a child a ball to keep him busy. And the only option left to Hillary was to grab the toy and play along.
An endless stream of faces deposited their money on the tray around her neck, each coin heavier than the last. At first she smiled, made conversation, the odd joke, their laughter a small burst of energy in a grey sea. But as the nights stretched on Hillary stopped seeing them. She just stared ahead, into the gathering night. The moths and gnats fluttered, drawn by the lights and the thick sugar in the air. They fluttered among the stars, battered Hillary’s painted face. When the tent closed behind the last guest neither she nor the pests could get in, and the roar of laughter became, blissfully, muted.
A gnat landed on her hand, the one that gripped the tray. It fed, and, once done, it lifted heavily into the air, flying away. A tear, the first she had allowed herself, fell from her nose and bounced off the tray. Her make-up had stained it red as the pinprick of blood on her hand.
And then Hillary eased the tray from around her neck and let it fall to the dewy grass. A cool wind blew, and the tent flap fluttered behind her, releasing a final cry of laughter into the night. Hillary didn’t hear.
Some years ago she had run away to the circus.
Now it was time she ran away from it.


© Alex Bestwick

The Songs of my Sisters by Kathy Hoyle

I was born of the water. My mother squatted in its depths and brought me forth, crying out thanks to her goddess. My gift was placed within me by the Earth’s spirit, bubbles of life claimed me as I rose. I heard the voices of my sisters singing as I opened my new-born eyes and saw their faces in the light. My first breaths were taken on the banks of the river … and my last.The river was my lifeblood. I would wade into the water, relishing her cold embrace. I bathed, sky-clad under each new moon and she would renew my gift, while the cattails and rushes whispered their secrets into the breeze. I knew the river’s twists and turns, her dark past and hopeful future.
At night, my mother and I would sing away our stories, let our words be carried by the flowing water. When Beltane brought the first warmth of a new summer sun, we would lay on the riverbank, listening, as the wind carried back the voices of the others, women, like us, blessed with the knowing. We sang our songs while we washed and swam, watched closely by the bright-eyed vole and the red-dashed moorhens.
Mother Earth decrees that our gifts are not our own to keep. They are meant for all to share. I was taught to take the herb and mix it. To take the seed and crush it. To cast and chant with my mother to guide me. I learnt how to tend and heal with herbs and poultices. We boiled bark from the white willow, made soothing tea from the crimson poppy. We cast to banish sickness from the bodies that had no right to live, we chanted to ease the minds of those crippled with grief. We took babies from bellies and showed them the light and we brought love to those with empty hearts. Not all are blessed, but those of us who are, must giveback threefold. They called us wise women, cunning folk, healers, sisters… until the tide turned. Then, they called us ‘witch’.
Moons passed and my mother’s hair became woven with silver. We sat by the river and I held her hand as the sun touched my brow. My mother breathed her last and slipped quietly into the water while a mute swan sailed past. She was gone and I was gifted her strength and her spirit, Mother to daughter, as it has always been. The river carried her to open waters, sweeping her into the realm of the dead, where the Ocean Goddess would bless her and guide her home.
Alone and yet not, I stayed by the river through summers of bountiful harvests, gifts from those I had cured, bread to eat, peat to burn, all were given with kindness and I was grateful. The river shared her fish to eat and her reeds and rushes to weave. I looked out toward the dark hills etched against the grey skies of the outer worlds. Worlds I never wished to visit; such was my content. I stayed through winters of frost and crisp bleak mornings when a mist lay across the river like a silken shroud. Reflections of my mother’s face would warm my soul on those dark mornings. The river flowed on, year after year. Time would never still her beating heart.
I waited for a different harvest. One of my own. A daughter to bless in the river. A new sister to pass on the gift. But none came. Parish men looked at me with curious affection, yet none were willing to be lured. It seems I lacked my mother’s guile. And still I stayed close. The river was all I knew, all I needed.
Over time, the outside world began to change, and Mother Earth began to weep for her daughters. We had always lived in harmony, but now, a King had come. His words swept across the land like a deadly sickness. They crawled into the hearts of men and filled them with hatred. The people no longer heard harmony in our songs, only discord. The women were forbidden to seek our healing, and our wisdom was scorned. This new King was afraid, and fear, as always, brings mistrust. He told his men to take us to the river and cleanse us of our imagined sins. Sins a Christian God decreed, a God I neither worshipped nor understood.
As rusted leaves fell across her banks, the river slowed and swelled. Soon songs of terror began to echo all around me. The river pulsed with menace. Run, sister, run!
It was the deepest winter-tide when the King’s men finally came. I lay on the bracken, watching embers from the fire glow in the grate. I did not run. Where would I go? They pulled me from my bed and placed a sack about me, striking, prodding, hissing.
‘Witch!’
‘Devil’s whore!’
My hands were bound. A cart carried me to a small, stone cell, rank with stench and fear. Parish women came, their eyes lowered in the candlelight, their voices soft.
‘Be still, it will go quicker.’
They tore away my dress, ran their calloused hands over my skin, spread me open, their own cheeks flushed with shame, searching for a darkness, a devil’s stain. It was a fruitless search, but that mattered not. A man, stuffed plump like a fattened foul, read laws from a leather-bound book. Not true laws governed by Mother Earth, the tides, the moon, the natural order, but laws written by a King. Laws that decreed that I was born from the Devil’s blood. A Christian Devil, one that had no place at my alter.
‘Maleficium!’, the man cried out, over and over, louder and louder, until I heard nothing. His voice faded into darkness until all I felt was the beating, striking, burning wrath of his God. When he was spent, I welcomed the shadows that crawled over my broken body. I closed my eyes and longed for my mother’s arms.
A trial was set. I was dragged form the cold stone floor, into a room filled with men. A room that throbbed with hatred. I hung my head; the verdict was decided many days before.
Finally, I was led back to the river. Flakes of snow brushed my cheeks as I stood shivering by the water.
They came to watch, those whose sickness I had cured. They stood on the banks, clutching the children I had borne for them.
A man, eyes gleaming with malice, took out the leather-bound book, proclaiming his God and his King. I was damned to a hell they all believed in. A place I knew did not exist. The shouts came first.
‘Duck the witch!’
‘Cleanse her!’
‘Save our children!’
Then came the stones.
How they laughed as each one struck, blood dripping from my brow into the folds of my dress. I was bound once more, this time to a squat wooden stool. A man, whose child I had nursed through a fever, spat on my neck as he tied the knot. His eyes met mine and he smiled, then gave a nod.
Down I plunged, down into the ice-cold depths of the river. She fought hard, pushing me up, up to the bankside, not yet ready to take me, for it was not my time. Yet the men, with their laws and their God, the shouts of the others urging them on, plunged me in once more, and then again and again… until finally, the river relented. I saw my mother’s face, then the darkness came, falling like a heavy cloak. I was swept away in a rush of water… out, out, toward the ocean goddess.
Many moons have passed since that day. The river ebbs and the river flows, carrying with it all that has been before and all that will come. The circle turns and death becomes life. The river’s heart beats steady and true.
They called us wise women, cunning folk, healers, sisters…witches.
To those who sought to silence us, listen well. The river slows and swells with our voices, pulsing with menace. The day would always come when the tide would turn and now I shall rise up and sing with my sisters once more.


© Kathy Hoyle

Parts by Alexander Mo

It was coming up to three in the morning, and despite the floodlights stretching around the perimeter of the trailer park, it was still dark. It wasn’t the kind of trailer park people lived in. It was the kind where Simone, and very few other people, worked. She hated how dark it was, not that light would have made the job any less unpleasant.With a well-practiced heave, Simone slammed the doors of a trailer shut. That’s one more done, she thought. In the dim light, various dried fluids shone both glossy and matt against her vulcanised rubber gloves. She slid the bolt through the lock and hooked in the padlock before snapping it shut with a push. She had to take a break before sorting the next trailer, she desperately needed to. But there was no time, there never was. She wretched at the foetid air churning sourly in her lungs.
“You alright, Sim? asked Nye as he locked up a trailer the next row along. He’d been doing this for longer than her and, to her great distaste, actually enjoyed it somehow.
“That’s one more down,” he announced cheerily. “
Simone nodded and didn’t say anything. She never spoke much when she had to work long shifts. It was something to endure and hope to never go through again. Of course, that would never happen. Of that she was certain.
She retched again as she approached the next trailer. Her supervisor said this one was particularly bad. The whole thing had been badly damaged in the incident meaning that everything inside needed to be sorted and resealed. The corners of the trailer had been rounded by multiple impacts and a couple of cracks and splits on the side oozed a thick shiny sludge. The trailer doors opened with a low scraping sound. She gagged at the smell.
“It’s okay Sim. They can’t hurt you,” Nye said smiling behind his mask.
“I bloody hope not,” she said half joking half not. “Why couldn’t they have just burned it down or something? I mean, look at this shit!”
“I heard there’s more coming too. The company’s taken on another contract, some ritzy private clinic.”
“Great,” said Simone, “now the rich buggers want to dump their shit here too.”
“Yep, moving up.”
“I feel classier already,” Sim laughed but her jollity was short lived. “I don’t know how much more of this I can take Nye. How do you do it?”
Nye shrugged. “I just can’t afford to care anymore,” he gave Simone a serious look, “and neither can you.”
Simone smiled at this and turned up her headlight, revealing the trailer’s innards. Racks lining the walls had come loose, so too had the containers attached to them.
She grabbed a stiff bristle brush from her cart and stepped into the trailer, the floor was soft, spongey, and very wet. She felt a fist close around her gut as the smell of rot dissolved into the membranes of her nose and throat. She swept aside a large cloying pile of the wet glutinous substance that had coated every surface and inspected the state of the racks. The whole thing will have to be sent to engineering.
A blackened length of something hung from a rack above her, dangling inches from her face. It was about two feet long, ending in a rounded mass attached longer but also quite rounded stumps. Fingers, must be an arm, she thought. The thing was a splotchy grey black save for the gelatinous white fluid forcing itself through the already over stretched skin. Manoeuvring awkwardly between fallen racks, she stepped on something hard, not metal hard but hard enough. It burst beneath her feet.
How was it, she wondered, that people like Nye could just get on with this? What does he know that she doesn’t? Was he taking something, did he know a special meditation technique that made him immune to all this ugliness. That was unlikely. The only person Nye ever spoke to, apart from Simone, was Doug, their supervisor. And Doug, though not naïve, was far too straight for drugs and too old fashioned for meditation.
The three of them were close, the kind of close that grew from their lifelong three way rally of saving each other’s skin. None of them remember who saved who first, only that it was something they did now; part of the job.
It was an activist group that had turned the trailer park into such a mess. They called themselves Reco-warriors, self proclaimed divine agents who rescued the desecrated according to Doug’s knowledge.
“They didn’t do a very good job this time,” Simone called to Nye.
“Do they ever?” Nye poked his head out from a hole in the side of his trailer. “I mean look at all this,” he threw out a leaking bag of orange brown slop, it smelled off rotten eggs and old fish.
“Watch it idiot! Don’t throw that stuff around!”
“Sim calm down. With all the mandatory vaccines we get from the company, I can drink a pint of this and not get sick.”
Sim knew this was true, she wasn’t unreasonable, she just didn’t want Nye throwing bags of rotten blood everywhere. “Vaccinations don’t fight toxins genius. Now cut it out.”
They continued working in silence for several hours until a loud pop behind them broke their gory monotony. Cautious but not alarmed, they stepped out of their trailers. There was the sound of someone struggling a few trailers down. Another noise, louder than before, something heavy hitting metal. It came again, and again and again.
Simone and Nye walked towards each other into the path between their trailers. They looked in the direction of all the noise. Shadows twisted and jittered before them. A figure appeared.
It didn’t take them long to realise what was happening. They knew this was coming. It always did, they just never knew when.
The figure drew nearer, its features clarifying beneath the floodlights. It was a young man, shotgun cradled in his arm. Simone knew him and so did Nye. Justin, or at least that’s the name they knew him by. A dangerous man, a fact he proved every time he visited. It was from this man and all his kind that Simone, Nye and Doug had continued to save each others skin.
“Morning Simone, Nye,” he said.
Simone and Nye nodded.
“Sorry to call so early. You’re up anyway I suppose,” Justin said laughing. “Just another job for you guys really isn’t it?”
They nodded again.
“It’s funny isn’t it. I mean, here we are, living and working in perfect harmony,” Justin closed his eyes and twirled his fingers above his head. “Jobs for us equals jobs for you, my job feeds your job and your job, done correctly, keeps me in my job,” he clapped his hands and laughed hysterically. Simone and Nye did not join in.
Justin straightened himself and brought his hands to his mouth, dabbing his fingertips on his lips. “Could you guys come... help us with this one?”
Simone and Nye followed Justin to where they’d heard the noise. The trailer had been defaced and a large crucifix had been painted on its side. At the base of it lay the remains of a man. Thin wisps of steam drifted from the bottom half of his head while the top half lay all around him in wet shiny clumps.
“Just pop him in with the others if you can please, thank you,” said Justin.
Simone and Nye bent down to pick up the body and hauled the body towards the trailer Simone had been inspecting. Justin followed them, until the stench forced him to stay back. Simone and Nye put the body down, their hands were shaking.
“You two are so kind,” Justin smiled coldly at them. “You want to speak to him?”
Simone nodded, Nye didn’t move.
“Here you go,” Justin handed her his phone. It was already calling.
“Hello?” a voice rasped.
She knew the voice, “Hey Doug,” she said trembling, “you alright?”
“Fine, just sick of this shit.” A sharp crack sounded and Doug said no more. Justin snatched the phone back before Doug could reply.
“Alright, you know the drill,” said Justin adjusting his grip on the shotgun, “you’ve got a week to clear it out, someone will come, do a sweep, make sure we’re clean, we let Doug go and we’re dandy, yes?”
Simone and Nye nodded.
“Great,” Justin smiled. “I can’t remember who’s collateral next time,” Justin tapped his lip with a finger, “well, it doesn’t matter. We’ll sort it out when it comes,” he waved them goodbye, turned and walked away.
It didn’t matter to anyone else but them who was taken next. And so long as they always did what Justin said, it didn’t matter to them either.
They waited until Justin left the trailer park. Once they were sure he was gone, they trudged back to the trailer they put the body and closed it, carefully.


© Alexander Mo

Stars by Abigail Green

Maria doesn't fully understand why she followed Ari Johnson up and onto the roof of the school. It was pure idiocy and it's not even as if Maria could claim that she was worried Ari might hurt herself – the roof was just high enough that somebody could walk beneath it, but nowhere near as high up as the other rooftops of their high school.

“What are you doing up here?” Maria asks Ari, who just looks to the side briefly before patting the space besides the spot where she lays as if they were in a meadow of green grass and not a dusty, dirty rooftop in the middle of Lincoln. Perhaps it was her emerald eyes that sparkled with mischief or perhaps her smile, that seemed to promise an answer to all Maria's questions, but for whatever reason Maria quickly found herself reclined on her back starring up into the sky just like Ari.

“Okay. What are we doing?” Maria asks finally, still trying desperately to work out what they were watching and still only seeing blue sky. Ari reaches out and takes Maria's hand and despite the fact that normally anybody who lured Maria onto a roof and then decided to try cuddling up (although she supposed it was only really their hands that were cuddling) would immediately earn themselves a swift scathing response, Maria supposed she didn't really mind, it just made her hand feel tingly.

“Stargazing,” Ari replies with such conviction that Maria finds herself double checking the sun just to make sure that she hasn't accidentally lost six or so hours of her life. No, it was still daylight. Maria thinks that perhaps she ought to check the other girl for concussion, and yet something made her believe that it was Maria who was looking at it wrong not Ari.

 

They don't know what possesses them to stay on top of that roof until the sunsets – Ari still seeing her imagined stars and Maria just enjoying the serene peace that came from this place, this roof, Ari – but they do. They stay there until the actual stars appear in the sky. They stay there until it starts to rain and then they finally head home.

Maria's mother tells her off for being out past curfew and grounds her for a week and yet Maria doesn't regret it. Maria doesn't regret it even when it becomes common knowledge around school and then becomes the running joke in every classroom 

“Sorry I'm late sir,”

“Ah, Rebecca, finally you grace us with your presence, I was just about to search the roof”.

Nobody understands exactly why the girls did it – not even the girls themselves – but every so often when Ari made her way onto the roof and Maria managed to join her, the pair feel for just the briefest moment that they might be close to understanding.

“Why do you keep coming back here?” Ari finally asks one day.

“I'm still trying to see your stars,” Maria admits feeling stupid.

“Then you're looking at it wrong,” Ari says confidently and Maria glances over just as Ari kisses her.

In that moment, Maria doesn't see the stars, she sees whole Galaxies.

“Do you see?” Ari asks, looking back up into the sky.

“I see,” Maria says breathlessly, gripping Ari's hand tightly.

When they finally head back to their classes, hands still firmly clasped, they finally have answers to all the questions. When people ask them why, Maria will tell them that whenever she looks at Ari; she sees galaxies. Whenever she takes her hand; she sees suns explode. Whenever she kisses her; she feels like she's floating off in space. They did it, because they are two planets orbiting each other, and Maria's never felt more at peace than when she's by Ari's side.


© Abigail Green

A Campfire Story by Mike Noyes

The Dunning family were camping in Joshua Tree National Park for the weekend. Mike, the husband and father of three, had just purchased a new motorhome (a top of the line Winnebago) and he was excited to break it in. Susan, Mike’s wife of fourteen years, had been obviously reticent about the purchase, but she saw how excited he was, she just couldn’t say no. Besides, Mike had just gotten that huge bonus at work, it’s not like they couldn’t afford it. Jesse, the eldest of the three kids at 13, was also very excited. He loved being outdoors and going for hikes and Mike promised they’d be doing a lot more of that from now on. Christy, the 10 year old, wasn’t nearly as thrilled. She had hoped to have a sleep over at Brenda’s house that weekend, now she was going to have to deal with Jesse farting in her face every time he climbed in or out of the top bunk. Ashley, the 4 year old, didn’t seem to care one way or another. Saturday night Mike decided they should go for a hike up to the nearby plateau to get a better view of the sunset, none of the women were happy about the idea. Susan had had a couple glasses of wine, she wasn’t drunk, but she wasn’t in the mood to hike. Christy had finally started to enjoy herself, roasting marshmallows over the fire, and she had just gotten into a groove of roasting them perfectly, charred on the outside, gooey in the center. Mike assured Christy that she could roast more marshmallows when they got back.
The hike was pretty, but took a little longer than expected and they just barely made it in time to see the sunset. They all stood side-by-side enjoying the view as the sun disappeared from sight. Even Christy had to admit that it was very pretty, she tried taking a picture of it with her mom’s phone, but it didn’t quite capture it. She decided to draw it in her sketchbook when he got back. She was glad she had decided to bring her crayons along.
Ashley was starting to get cold so they headed back.
They walked along the plateau and Mike couldn’t seem to find the trail that led back down the hill to where their camp was. They were traveling by flashlight now and the girls were getting very cranky. Even the enthusiastic Jesse was beginning to lose some of his enthusiasm.
Susan expressed her concern, but saw that Mike was starting to get stressed out so didn’t play the “I told you so card.” She’d save that for later when they were safe.
As they passed a spot Susan was sure they’d passed at least 3 or 4 times already they saw a campfire off in the distance. They started towards it hoping to find some fellow campers who might point them in the right direction. They were still a distance from the fire when they came across a ravine, easily a foot across. Not large, but enough to cause them pause.
Something about the fire and the ravine triggered a memory from Mike’s childhood and he froze with fear. He knew that crossing that ravine was a very dangerous notion.
“I did it!” Jesse shouted as he leapt to the other side.
“Jesse, no!” Mike panicked.
“He’s fine, Mike. It’s easy to cross right here.” And Susan stepped over, helping Christy while carrying Ashley.
“We should go back.” Mike couldn’t tell them what he had suddenly just remembered. They wouldn’t believe him. Did he believe it? Was it just an old campfire story his dad told to scare the kids?
“Mike, we’re clearly lost. We need to ask for help. C’mon.”
Mike knew that without telling them the truth he had no argument. And even if he did tell them they’d probably just laugh at him.
He took a deep breath and crossed.
They approached the campfire and the hair on the back of Mike’s neck stood up.
“What if they’re not friendly?” He suddenly said.
“You’ve watched too many horror movies.” Susan laughed, though clearly she was a little nervous now too.
“Maybe you haven’t seen enough.”
“Stop, Mike, you’ll scare the children.”
Mike saw movement around the campfire. He could see there were people there, but he couldn’t see how many. There was a small hill next to the fire and whoever was there kept walking away from the fire behind the hill.
Mike suddenly wished he’d brought his .45 that was in the lock box in the Winnebago. He mostly used it for target practice. His only victims up to this point had been a few aluminum cans, but he figured if things got dicey he could do what needed to be done to protect his family. However, that gun was very far away from this situation.
“Hello!” Susan shouted as they got closer.
Three of the silhouetted figures stopped what they were doing and looked in their direction. Two more silhouetted heads popped out from behind the hill. None of the silhouettes moved. They just stared out at them.
“That’s a little creepy.” Jesse said.
The Dunnings approach collectively slowed a little. Susan was about to suggest turning around when Ashley giggled and took off running.
“Ashley!” Susan shouted. Both parents took off in pursuit.
“Jesse, stay with your sister!” Mike shouted back.
Ashley shot around the hill and disappeared. The silhouettes watched her and the two that had poked their head out from behind the hill slipped back behind following her.
“Oh, Jesus!” Susan screamed.
Mike and Susan turned the corner and Ashley was standing there next to a second fire eating something small and white. Almost like a grape, but bigger. The two silhouettes were both people, adults, both crouching next to Ashley, their backs to Mike and Susan. They hadn’t even looked at the three by the fire as they ran past. Ashley ate one of the not-grapes and the female handed her another one.
“What’cha got there, sweetie?” Susan said. She tried to hide it, but Mike could hear the quiver in her voice.
Ashley turned and held one out to her parents. It was an eyeball, the iris a striking green. “Have one mommy, they’re good!” Mike noticed a cauldron boiling over the second fire. The female who had yet to face Mike and Susan stirred the pot and several eyeballs floated to the top, bobbed briefly and sunk back down.
“Ashley, we need to leave now.” Mike reached down and picked up his daughter.
“Do you want one, daddy?”
“No, I…” finally one of the campfire people turned to face him. They looked human but their features were off a bit. Their teeth were sharp and numerous, almost like the mouth of a shark. Their nose was longer and pointy. And their eyes. They didn’t have any. The black hole that was their eye socket was almost hypnotic. Mike froze when he saw the female's face.
“Mike!” Susan grabbed his shoulder and pulled him back. Mike slowly started to back up.
“Dad!” Mike turned and saw that the three by the first fire now had Jesse and Christy. Their eyes were gone. They didn’t even look scared. They just stood there.
Mike spun around and looked back at Susan. The female had her hands on Susan’s shoulders. Susan’s eyes were gone now too.
Mike panicked and ran. He knew he needed to do something to help his family, but the first thought in his head was “Not Ashley too!” He had to get her away. Get her safe.
He made his way back to the ravine. “If I can only cross the ravine we’ll be safe.”
“Daddy stop.” He did. He didn’t want to, but… he did.
“Daddy, we need to go back.” Ashley didn’t sound like herself and Mike was suddenly terrified to look at his daughter’s face.
He took a deep breath and turned to face her, her porcelain skin shining in the moonlight. Her eye sockets were empty.
“I love you, daddy!” She smiled and revealed a mouth full of sharp teeth.
Tears began to stream down his face.
“I love you too, sweetheart.”
Then everything went black.


© Mike Noyes

Kelsey by Robert Boucheron

My name is Kelsey and I live at the animal shelter. Someday, I hope to meet a thoughtful person such as yourself. Meanwhile, I groom myself and rest. Marianne wrote a description of me and clipped it to the front of my steel-barred unit. You may as well read it.
Kelsey is a sweet, placid, and adorable, a classic calico kitty with splotches of orange, white and chocolate in her fur. She loves to sit in the window and watch the world go by, or sit in your lap and purr, or sit and meditate. So much contemplation has made her wise beyond her years. She is about twelve years old, and she lived with an elderly lady who took loving care of her. Definitely an indoor cat, Kelsey is in excellent health, has had all her shots, and is spayed. She may be a little overweight from lack of exercise, but if you play with her, she will quickly shed those pounds! She loves to romp with a sensitive, gentle adult. Kelsey might not do well with rambunctious children or a household that already has a dog. And she has not lived with other cats, so it is hard to say if she would make friends. She is a furred person singular, as pretty as a picture, and eager to make your acquaintance.
I take issue with “splotches.” My coat is variegated. Marianne writes hundreds of cat bios, and they tend to repeat, so she throws in odd words. They feed us well here, that fancy scientific chow, so it’s possible I gained a pound or two. They keep us in lockdown and give us one exercise period a day, like jailbirds, so that’s another factor. But the part about children and other animals—Marianne nailed that one.
The elderly lady was carried out feet first. Her name was Ruthie or Mrs. Garrison, depending on her mood. I was resting with my eyes closed, when I heard a crash. I yawned, then strolled over to investigate. Ruthie lay crumpled on the floor. She clutched a watering can with a long skinny spout. Maybe she tried to reach the hanging spider plant and lost her balance. Maybe she tripped. The place was littered with throw rugs and carpet remnants, good for digging in your claws but not exactly magazine-style décor. I lay next to her for a while, then went back to my warm spot.
Fortunately, the home health aide checked on Ruthie once a day. She was still breathing. The aide phoned it in. The emergency guy asked her “What year is this?” and “How many fingers am I holding up?” Then they strapped her on a gurney and took her away. The apartment manager called me “poor thing” and picked up the watering can. Then she called the animal shelter and said she had an arrival. Maybe it was last week, maybe it was months ago. It’s easy to lose track of time in here.
Now that I’ve caught your attention, I’ll make an effort. First, a full-body stretch, then a poised, seated posture. Ears forward, tip of tail vibrates to show interest. You can take me out of the cage and hold me. Ruthie liked to cradle me like a baby and sing hymns. Bizarre, but I got used to it.
If you like, a staff member will escort us to the interview room. Wendell, not Marianne—today’s not her shift. It’s that room with the glass wall facing the lobby. See the rocking chair, the plush carpet, and the climbing contraption? You didn’t hear it from me, but it’s called a “feline environment.”
Easy does it as you lift me. I’m heavier than you expect. Wendell will come back in a few. Take your time. Did he just wink? Yes, you can close the door. I’m okay. Are you okay?
The toys are cute—the fuzzy ball, the string thing, the feathered birdie. The mouse is okay—it squeaks when you bite hard. After kittenhood, I haven’t been big on toys. Maybe later.
Pet me all you want. I won’t break. Yes, that feels good. When I close my eyes and purr that means keep it up. You’ve been around cats, haven’t you? I can tell.
You can call me Kelsey, but it’s not my real name. Marianne makes them up. Hundreds of names, whatever pops into her head. You can call me whatever you want, but don’t expect me to come like a dog. Massage my neck, and I’m all yours.
A little rocking chair time in your lap? Suits me fine. Oops, I didn’t mean to snag your sleeve with my claw. Sometimes it sticks out like that. I don’t say: “Now I will extend my claw and rip that sucker to shreds.” It just happens, okay? You understand about accidents.
Wendell is knocking on the glass. He can be goofy, but he’s a good kid. And he knows cats. Interview time is up, he says. How did it go?
You want to adopt me! For real? Sure, I mean, yes, I mean, that’s cool.
Did you know the animal shelter is running a special today? Two for one or half price. Technically, they don’t sell cats. It’s an adoption fee. You just want one cat. That is totally okay with me. Fill out the paperwork, and pledge to treat me humanely. Sign your name where it says “parent.” Personal check, credit or debit card—they’re all good.
You brought your own pet carrier? Super! But wait, that’s not all. They give you a free bag of cat chow. It must be some promotional deal with the pet food company.
Do I want to say goodbye to Wendell and the gang? They’re okay, but enough is enough. I’m ready to blow this joint and live with you forever. That’s a long time, right?


© Robert Boucheron

Howl by Shaun Calvert

Not all dogs are good boys. Some are good girls, and Capitoline was a very good girl.
She was also a very pregnant girl. She currently contained six babies, which as any mother could attest, is too many babies. These puppies were ready to come out, and Capitoline felt a twang of pain in her abdomen. She didn’t fully understand her situation but the flood of hormones made her want to seek shelter and love small defenceless creatures.
She was not alone; her den was one of several dotted around the patch of woodland known to the local humans as the dump. It was a space they dumped things they no longer needed, from old furniture to some of Capitoline’s ancestors. It was home to many dogs, some feral pets, some semi-domesticated wolves. Each a reject, these dogs and wolves had come together to form her pack and thanks to some timber wolf DNA from her grandfather, she was one of the more dominant females.
The pack was not alone. They were never truly alone. The diversity of life is often greatest where two habitats meet and the dump was very much the boundary between a great expanse of woodland, and the vast scar in the landscape that marked the realm of humanity. The humans called their town Liuerpul. The pack knew it by a name in a complex language of smells and visual cues that cannot be accurately conveyed by the written word.
On this evening, the pack was less alone than normal. Three men approached; one armed with a crossbow, one armed with a spear, and one armed with a large wriggling sack. Some of the larger members of the pack were already circling to attack from both sides if necessary. It wasn’t. The man threw the sack into the middle of the dump and they left as abruptly as they had arrived. This was not uncommon; this was the dump after all. From multiple shadows, inquisitive noses sniffed. The sack moved, its contents freeing itself and falling onto the floor.
It was a tiny human. Small, glistening noses continued to twitch, unsure. On the one paw, humans were dangerous. On the other paw, humans often produced food. On the other other paw (dogs can consider things in this way as they have four paws), many of the pack remembered the companionship of humans and what it was like to be scratched behind the ear in the perfect spot. On the last remaining paw, the tiny human was very small and so could BE food.
The men that left here were wicked souls and could only see the world twisted in their image. They saw these feral dogs and assumed they would instantly strike, tearing the child apart and consuming the evidence that was so inconvenient to the lord of the town.
But these dogs, though feral, though wild, though always just a little bit hungry, were good dogs. One of these good dogs saw a defenceless creature and would risk her life to protect it, and the inquisitive little noses twitched in the shadows as Capitoline pulled the child into her den and began licking her first adopted puppy.
The child, whose short life had been so traumatic, found the warm den and gentle touch comforting and soon fell asleep as his siblings were born.
Newborn puppies are very cute but very helpless. Blind, slow, and always hungry. Newborn humans are similar but don’t even have the saving grace to be cute. The adopted human was not a newborn but humans took a long time to get good at anything. The puppies quickly outgrew their big brother who seemed to struggle with the most basic of dog tasks. They didn’t seem to mind. The pack found this new furless member very interesting. It had hands that were drawn to petting soft heads, and soft heads liked to be pet. It also had thumbs, which were exceptionally useful, and it was getting smarter.
Capitoline was proud of all her puppies and loved each one equally. She taught them all she knew about being a dog. Her eldest, the human, was named something that when simplified for the written word would read something like ‘Howl’.
Howl was a very smart dog, being that he was a human. He had learned all about being a dog from his mother, and from foraging and hunting in the woodlands, he learned all about nature; its fine balance and generous bounties. Humanity had a lot to teach him as well, and he gobbled up these lessons too, from a safe distance of course.
He became the best hunter and forager. When dogs got sick, he would make medicine from herbs. When dogs got injured, he would clean (without the use of his tongue, which was a ground-breaking new technique in the dog world) and dress the wound. He planted tobacco around the dump, which would kill the ticks and fleas on the dogs whenever they entered or exited the site.
All puppies must grow up and males of all species are often driven to strike out on their own and so it was with Howl. He would disappear for a few days, a few weeks, a few months. Capitoline’s tail never moved so fast as when her eldest puppy returned home. Excited barks and whimpers echoed through the woodlands whenever he approached. Each return brought new gifts. Food, medicine, custom-made dog beds, chew toys as well as more mystical items as well.
The world was full of magic, and monsters. The more Howl saw of it the more he worried for the world, worried about the delicate balance of nature and worried for the pack, his pack. Dogs were little match for dragons, or dinosaurs or well just big mean lizards in general, and magic was beyond their grasp. Or so it would seem.
As sweet little Capitoline began to grow grey hair around the whiskers, Howl was almost never seen. Years would pass, and she worried she might not see her son again. Then came a harsh winter. Capitoline was too old to leave the den in such weather. Curled in a tight ball in the back of the chamber that had been once so alive with the sound of yipping puppies, the cold began to creep in.
Outside the wind howled and Capitoline shivered. In her heart, she knew she couldn’t last long but she was too tired to do anything else. Time is a cruel thing. Her ears didn’t hear the distant barks. Her nose didn’t pick up the all too familiar scent. Her eyes tight shut would have seen little otherwise. But she felt the warmth on her head, as a hand gently stroked her hair. She jumped at first, but she immediately felt a wash of relief. Howl fiddled with his pack, more gifts, but she didn’t care about those, she was just so happy to see her baby again. She licked his hand like she would a new-born.
Humans see with their eyes, dogs see with their nose and through a dog’s nostrils, Howl looked the same as he had always done. To a human’s eyes, he was tall, rugged, bearded and scarred. He had travelled the world, fought mighty beasts and claimed legendary treasure. He produced an ornately carved green crystal. His mother paid it little attention, even though it glowed and hummed in a relaxing way. He gently patted his mothers head as he spoke an enchantment.
Moss began to spread out across the interior of the den, but Capitoline was more interested in trying weakly to climb into Howls lap, her near hairless tail wagging ever so slightly. Snow melted and gave way to lush grass, icy cold fog, turned into hot humid air that smelled of the deepest jungles. It meant very little you Capitoline. Howl smiled as he stroked his mother’s hair, partly because he loved and had missed her very much, but partly because with each stroke the grey hair grew darker and thicker. The tail swished a little faster, stiff legs found purchase easier and a crusty old nose grew dark and wet. All around the dump, wounds healed, sicknesses faded, hunger subsided and time seemed to go backwards for all the residents here.
Dogs do not understand ageing, they just feel a little more tired, a little more stiff. So Capitoline thought very little of regaining her youth. She was glad she didn’t feel the cold so much, or that her legs weren’t so stiff, but she didn’t have time for such thoughts because her son had been off galivanting and had come home filthy and needed a wash, and dogs know only one way to clean errant puppies. He laughed and howled.
Every dog has its day, and it would seem for Capitoline that day was still ahead of her.

Woof woof, aka, the end.


© Shaun Calvert

Koi by Nadia Mikail

“I think we should get some koi fish,” Don said.
 
Kay slanted a look over to him. “Koi fish? We don’t have a pond.”

“They can live for more than fifty years,” said Don. “It’s a good investment.”

“I think you’re not listening,” said Kay, which meant it was the end of the conversation. “We don’t have a pond.”

“We don’t need a pond,” Don said, but Kay had diverted her attention back to her laptop, typing furiously away with her gaze focused on whatever important email it was she had to send immediately. The ghost of her attention lingered in the air. Don looked back at the website. Apparently they needed at least four hundred gallons.

***
Later that night, after brushing his teeth and turning out the lights, he said quietly, “Darling?”

“Yes, babe,” said Kay, sounding half-asleep already.

“We don’t need a pond,” Don said.

Kay sighed, the sound loud in the quiet room. “Koi need a pond. They get really big and eat each other, or something like that. Get a goldfish, if you really want a pet.”

Kay had allergies, so they couldn’t have a dog or a cat. Even a hamster made her sneeze.

“Okay,” Don said.

***
The next morning was Sunday. It was the day Kay needed to prepare for work on Monday, so Don sat and looked up koi keeper facts on his phone.

The day after that was Monday, and that was when the builders arrived. Don watched them measure proportions, check pipelines, smoke cigarettes in his garden. They left before Kay came back, late at night and exhausted. She didn’t notice the ghost of all that extra smoke, kissing Don distractedly and going to bed. Then came the excavation, then placing the skimmer and spillway, lining the pond, and adhering it. It took her a week to notice, and by then the rockery was being set.

The only reason she noticed was that a large stone had been accidentally left by the backdoor, and she had gone down for a late-night snack. Something woke Don that night, and he stumbled sleepily down too. She was framed against their doorway, watching their moonlit half-formed pond.

“I think I’m getting three,” Don said. She startled a bit, then pointedly looked away from him, back to the pond.

“I thought I said no to this,” she said.

“You said we don’t have a pond,” Don corrected. “Now we do.”

“I need to sleep,” Kay said. “Can we talk about this tomorrow?”

“Sure,” Don said. He took over her watch when she went back upstairs. He stood where she had and felt the warmth of her bare feet.

***
Kay didn’t say anything in the morning. At any rate she was called away for a meeting after breakfast. Half-relieved, Don waved her off and moved a few stones. He sat on a large flat one in the warmth of the spring sun, right in the middle of the pool. He looked up.

It would be a good view for the koi, he decided.

Kay came back late. Don thought perhaps that it would be one of those things, just unsaid between them and lingering, the vacant space in the middle of their bed, but on Sunday morning she was watching him as he blinked awake.

“That’s quite creepy,” he said.

“Why koi?” she asked.

“They live more than fifty years,” he said. She stared at him like it wasn’t an answer. Perhaps it wasn’t, but she should have understood. Five years ago she might have. Now she stared. “It’s a good investment,” Don said, to the ghost-of-the-her-of-five-years-ago.

To the current Kay’s credit, she nodded once, slow. “Fine. But I’m not feeding them, you know,” she said. “I just don’t have the time.”

***

The koi came on Tuesday, once they’d connected the pump to the filter, the filter to the pond. Once the workers had left and taken their heavy, friendly cigarette smoke and low chatter with them. Three of them. A bright orange one, with white fins and a tail. One a paler orange, with a sleeker shine. And one with a dirty tar-like splotch on its back, Don’s personal favourite. “Hello,” he said.

They did not look up.

This comforted Don immensely. “One of your ancestors lived up till he was two hundred and twenty-six,” he said. “You’re all going to beat that.”

They swam, frantic and placid at the same time, swishing. Don sat by the pond a long time. The large flat stone he’d moved to the side of it and he sat there, sunning himself as they did.

***

Kay came back as the sun’s rays deepened into a darker gold, which was early for her. She stood on the grass in her bare feet, and she rubbed them against it over and over. “Do they have names?” she asked.

“Not yet,” said Don. “Do you want to help name them?”

“You’re just trying to forge a connection,” she said wryly, but stepped closer. “This one looks like a Lizzie.” She pointed at the brightest one. “And that one kind of looks like a Winona.”

“This one looks like a Richard,” Don said. “Dick for short.”

“Have you fed them?” she asked. “Did you buy the food?”

“They eat anything,” Don said. He opened his hand and laid the slice of watermelon down on a nearby rock. Immediately Lizzie and Winona and Dick came to nip eagerly at it.

Kay watched this with amusement. It hung in the air, in a way that felt surprised at how easy it had come. “I might feed them,” she said. “Once in a while.”

“Don’t hurt yourself,” Don said, and she curved a grin at him.

Things settled into a sort of routine. Don would say goodbye to Kay as she went to work and go outside and feed them. He’d spend a couple of hours there, reading. Then he’d go in and get lunch, go outside and take a walk, clean or bake, and come back in time for late evening. Kay would come home, earlier these days, and they would talk as they watched Winona swim in lazy circles, or Dick chase after some food. Then they would get dinner and go to sleep, closer to each other in the bed.

***

At least there was a routine, and then they died.

All three of them, floating on the surface of the water, mouths open in ghastly cold-looking Os.

Don sat there in the spring sun until it started to get cold, and felt rather like he was floating as well, outside of his body. In his head he saw his father and in his nostrils was the scent of the Marlboros his father smoked after dinner.

He didn’t realise he was shaking until the car pulled up and Kay called for him. Then a short shocked silence, then he felt her arms around him and her voice in his ear. “Come inside, please.” He tried to, he really did. In his head he was walking, but then there was a blanket around him and her warm fingers on his cheeks.

“I’m so sorry,” Kay was saying.

He tried to get his voice to work. When it did, it was small. “You didn’t even want them.”

“I liked them,” Kay said. “I’m sorry.”

“They were supposed to live two hundred and twenty-six years.”

His father was supposed to live more than fifty years, too, but there was the night of the car crash, the night of his neck at an unnatural angle. He’d taken Don’s ability to talk, Don’s capacity to function, and Don’s relationship along with him, too.

“But I’m still here,” Kay said, and Don realised he’d said all of this aloud. “I’m no ghost.” Her fingers were now digging into his shoulders and she tugged him away from the sight of Lizzie’s motionless tail. “Look at me.” He looked at her and saw the ghosts of a thousand emails she’d delved into after her father-in-law had died but her husband had started haunting the house.

But she was there. Don kept looking.


© Nadia Mikail