Showing posts with label Booklet 4. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Booklet 4. Show all posts

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Nifty-Fifty Winners

That Creature Is Me By Nicole Wilson

My body felt eerily fine yet my mind kept whirling around the word: vomit. Moonbeams illuminate a rippling stream. I drudged down to the riverbed; the corpse smearing behind me. I hunch low to drink and see the reflection of dripping fangs, matted fur, ravenous eyes. The creature is me.

That Creature Is Me By Dave Phillips

Suki, fresh from showering, watched tv in her motel room. News bulletin: two hikers dead. Mutilated beyond recognition. Dental records required to identify. Suspected bear attack. Unusual for these parts. Suki used a toothpick to remove the sinewy flesh stuck between her teeth.

Blood On The Steering Wheel By Nisa Andrade

I rushed to my wife, box in hand.
“You promised to come back.” Her too-thin form shook as she hugged her pregnant belly.
“I’m here.”
“You’re not.”
Feeling helpless, I looked at the wrecked car. Blood on the steering wheel - so much of it, even the seats stained crimson.

Blood On The Steering Wheel By Dave Phillips


My car got a puncture in Death Valley. My worst nightmare. Nails in two tyres. A tow truck came an hour later. I’ll give you a ride, he said. In the cab I noticed the blood on the steering wheel. Turned out, my worst nightmare had only just begun.

Blood On The Steering Wheel By Vaibhav Sharma

This was the easiest score in his fifteen years as a car thief. A top of the line unlocked car was as rare as the sun in October. A heavy thud from the trunk at every speed breaker didn’t really bother him. Neither did the blood on the steering wheel.

Blood On The Steering Wheel by Alison Lowenstein

Harriet, PhD candidate, couldn’t study for this test. In the doctor’s office, she made a fist, as the nurse filled vials of blood needed to diagnose Harriet’s persistent pain, exhaustion and nose bleeds that left her car steering wheel covered in blood. When the test results arrived, they never left.

Blood On The Steering Wheel by David Walton

BA DUM BA DUM !!!
There was no way of avoiding the pheasant.
Thoughts ran from shock and remorse to excitement… and roasting.
Quiet country road. Nobody looking. She put the feathered body in the car.
Three minutes later, the bloodied bird flapped back to life.
PANIC! SWERVE! OAK TREE!

The Wrong Gravestone by Nathalie Roos

They have left me.
Only I remain, lost between the red petals, forever bound to the ground.
Yet, I can still hear the bombs, the screams. A faint echo from the depths of the earth.
I look up at the sky. Maybe the winds will carry me home one day.

The Wrong Gravestone by J.B. Polk

Looking at the gravestone, she remembered another man´s eyes after the body had been shifted: open, alert, despite the rictus of death. Once, he had said that the retinas of a dead man retained the last image they had seen before death. Was it her image engraved on his pupils?

The Wrong Gravestone by Dave Phillips


Leave it on the grave of Stan James, they said. $20,000. Then you get Janey back. I swear, I did leave the money on Stan James’s grave in a blue holdall, just like they said. I got Janey back. In pieces.

Take A Closer Look by Nathalie Roos

Is there any chance to start anew?
After all, whatever will be, will be. No matter what terrors I've been through, all I see in the mirror is still just me.
But something will grow from what I've been through.
In the end, I know that it will be me.

Take A Closer Look by Heather Graz

Perfect peace in the mid-summer garden. Sunshine, wind-still, surrounded by red, purple, white and pink splashes. Nothing stirring.
Then: ”bzzzz…bzZZZ!”
“A bee?”, she wonders. Absentmindedly, she walks over. It turns out, “bzzz” is the sound of the Common Candy-striped Spider’s lure to “come, take a closer look inside this flower”.

Alarms & Sirens by Nisa Andrade

It's been a long day. My room looks full but feels as empty as I am. I put down the phone beside the pill bottle and empty glass of vodka - my mouth bitter, throat on fire. Tonight, I rest. No snoozed alarms and blaring sirens will wake me tomorrow.

Alarms & Sirens by Dave Phillips


The water is cold. My float is leaking air. My clothes weigh me down. Ahead of me, the faint lights of the city. Miles to go. Behind me is the island. Search lights aglow, scanning the water. No one ever made it before. Maybe I will be the first.

Johnny by Steven Evans

It rained today. Just like it rained most days this summer. Teacher says that’s called pathetic fallacy. Smile on his face, trying to defuse the situation. Drag us back to the books. Make us forget.
Well, I say, I don’t know how pathetic it all is, but I know it’s as true as can be. Ain’t no fallacy.
The rain, that is, and what happened to Johnny.

Being the rational type, I’m inclined to think it was just coincidence.
I mean, the rain ain’t no trouble. It has no evil mind.
It just rains and that’s that, it rains.

But, if we’re honest, it can’t have helped. I mean, it did help. Made it easier. A lot easier.
What I mean is, without the rain, that thing Johnny went and done? It would never have happened.
Not like that anyways. He’d have found it mighty difficult. Difficult as hell.

***
Johnny was a good kid. My desk buddy since forever. But that’s all.
He never said much to nobody. Always kept himself to himself. A good kid.
Johnny liked the quiet, or at least that’s how it seemed. I mean, you never can tell for sure, can you?
I remember he’d sit by that big oak tree, a bag of roasted almonds in his hand, and watch the cattle grazing in the fields.
Or else you’d nearly always find him swimming in the river in the late afternoon. Down where Old Lady Styles used to teach him how to dive as a young’un.
He learned fast. Was a good swimmer.

This one night last autumn, just as it was getting dark, Johnny came to fetch me. Out of the blue.
Said the moon was to be big and bright that night. That the light would turn the river into a pool of liquid silver.
And he was right. I still don’t know how, but he was right.

We walked down the wooded track, half a mile long and twisted as a hog’s tail, until we reached the river.
It only took us ten minutes but by then it was pitch black.
At least, it would’ve been, if not for that giant moon. I’d never seen one so big. Nor since. It was like magic.
And I remember the river. So calm then, so delicate.

Johnny took my right hand and opened it up, flat.
He stared at the lines reflecting the moonlight. Maybe trying to read my fate, maybe just liking the way the moonbeams bounced off my sweaty pink palm.
I didn’t ask. It didn’t matter.
Dragonflies shimmered, blue and sparkling green, about our heads. Then skimmed over the water, feeding on helpless gnats.
The beauty of that night etched into my brain.

Johnny went for a swim while I watched. Oil slick patches, blue-black, stained his perfect skin.
Maybe this is what Old Lady Styles would do, I thought. Maybe he saw something of her in me.
When Johnny got out he lay down next to me. Arms behind his head, staring at the sky.
He smiled but didn’t make a sound. He didn’t need to. He was glistening.
As Johnny dried off, I smiled too, and thought about the moon, about dragonflies and about why good things must come to an end.

***

The call came through yesterday. It was the news everyone had feared. A body found, downriver, about three miles. Drowned.
That’s some journey, even for an expert swimmer like Johnny.
The river must have been moving fast.

Abe had seen him heading down to the black bridge that night the storm was due. The one nobody uses anymore. The one we stay clear of.
Abe tried to stop him but it was no use. Johnny was too far gone, and the rain was too thick. Too heavy.
Something had taken Johnny. Grabbed hold of him real tight. Dragged him away.

That was nearly two weeks ago and now, this call. I mean, we knew, but still, this call.
Abe will go today. Identify the body. And there’ll be no more swimming in the river.
A formality, the woman said. Like it was always meant to be.

***

Last night I cried in bed and thought about Johnny.
The moon was big and it was pink, and my palms were sweaty.


© Steven Evans

Agility by Stef Smulders

The hands of the girl moved as if she were a puppet. Her dog sat in front of her, panting, his large, meaty tongue dangling from his mouth. Ready to go. Can I? Can I? he seemed to say, his eyes radiating eagerness.
“Buddy, Buddy!” the girl cried. Her happy, high voice drifted away in the large hall where the onlooking crowd was dead silent, transfixed by the scene.
The dog remained in his spot.
“Buddy, Buddy!” the girl cried again.
The dog sat tight.
Then the father who was holding the girl whispered something in her ear. At first, she didn’t seem to understand, but then her eyes became bigger, and she said: “Go, Buddy, go!”
And off he went her dear pet, the joy of her short, restricted life. She looked at him and cried, “Go, go!” Her weak limbs, moved by her father, waved at the frantic dog who jumped, crawled, disappeared in the plastic round tunnel, climbed a small bridge and zigzagged between a series of elastic poles, before finally reaching the finish where the little girl welcomed him with a cascade of happy cheers.
The crowd applauded, choked with emotion.

As her father carried her away, the girl kept looking at her pet. An assistant brought him along on the leash. The dog looked at the girl with eager eyes. Is she happy? Is she happy? he seemed to ask.
Yes, she was.


© Stef Smulders

A Smouldering Secret by Amy B. Moreno

We’ve been sitting here, in a set square of renters’ magnolia, for three hours. And my fingers are pinching together, moulding the space where a cigarette should sit - that plume I’d suck deep inside, silencing everything… savouring, then exhaling down through my arms and out of my palms, like purifying stigmata.
 
But I’ve quit smoking. For the good of my health, at his worried insistence.

So, I sit and listen to him some more, comfort the man I love through relapsing crisis, obediently revisiting well-worn techniques. I make him a paperchain of coffees (decaf, of course), set out along the table. Doubts and accusations dress-up his darkest thoughts, and catch the back of my throat, acrid. He’s stuck on the same verse of a song, over and over, lost deep inside an ash-grey well. He cries, folding in on himself like a broken deckchair.

Finally, he relents to sleep, beside me on this worn, colourless, couch that we have yet to replace. I mentally list the outstanding odd jobs, side jobs, and big jobs in order of importance, wishing I could strike them off like matches. When his body lies heavy as a sandbag, I trickle myself off the seat, and out of the room.

I head to the backdoor, with my secret clattering around in my pocket.

On the doorstep of the damp night, stars flicker under a duvet. I inhale deeply through my nose.

I count to four, pause for seven, breathe out through my mouth for eight. I repeat the process several times.

My anxiety threatens to choke me. Burning embers squabble in my gut. But I need to be the strong one, I can’t let myself break. He can’t know how much I’m suffering; how afraid I am of my own thoughts. I hold on to my secret, and push it down, like tobacco packed into a pipe.


© Amy B. Moreno

Black Money Matters by Antonio Salituro

“Honey, wouldn’t it be nice to have a human servant?” Barbara set her metallic voice on lovely wife mode.
“What? Did they not become extinct in 2100?” Dexter turned off the New New York Times’ front page projected from his eyes and scanned Barbara’s pink face.
“Apparently not.” Her immaculate teeth glinted in the sunlight.
After running a truth test, Dexter raised his thick black brows. “Who told you that?”
“Mrs. Bolt—” she tilted forward across the kitchen table, then whispered, “she told me a rocket ship coming from Earth landed yesterday—”
“You should stop talking to that substandard machine.” He turned the vidscreen back on. “She’s just an electrician.”
“Don’t be racist, please.” Barbara beamed at her husband, then she went on, “officially, it was a delivery of clothes for a peculiar shop—”
“Oh, great, human smugglers. Perhaps plotting the second Mars colonization?” He waved his hands in the air. “She should work as a storyteller rather than checking our circuits.”
Barbara grabbed his cold hand. “Oh, please, let’s go to have a look. This house is so boring. And you know I can’t resist rare things.”
Dexter rotated his grey eyes and exhaled. “Okay, we’ll go tonight, but I’m not spending any more than a thousand gallons of water.”
“Thanks, babe, I’ll cook the finest polystyrene balls for dinner.”

They buzzed up in the blue sky at 6 p.m.. Barbara led the way, flying at a supersonic speed over the rusty desert, along the M10 lane. Dexter followed like a dog, his mouth leaking at the thought of the post-shopping treat.
The clothes shop was smack-bang in the New New York city center. They grounded to a halt as they reached the main airway crossing, where hundreds of Martian hovercars slowed the traffic down. Barbara’s nostrils hoovered the vanilla fragrance released by the exhausts’ filters in the thin Mars air. Dexter’s fingers swiped over his vidscreen, searching information on the shop owner.
Moving as slow as one of those primitive vehicles they had seen in old movies about Earth, the couple arrived at the Vintage Mall, a 10,000-foot tall steel skyscraper. On the top floor of the building, a green-colored flashing sign read: “EXTINCTION REBELLION”.
As they opened the door, a Martian dwarf looked up from the till and said, “Sorry, we’re closing.”
Barbara stepped towards the counter. “Are you the owner of the shop?”
His oval, grey face wrinkled and reached out for something underneath the counter. “Yes, I’m.”
“Sir, we’ve come all the way from the Branson’s crater. I promise we’ll be quick.”
The shop owner sighed. “I’ve got a family, you know?”
“And I’ve got a thousand gallons of transparent gold to invest,” Dexter broke in.
The Martian’s red eyes gleamed. “Ok, feel free to have a look.”
Barbara smiled at the shopkeeper and started roaming around the aisles. Dexter stood in front of the counter, checking the live updates on the water price on his virtual screen.
The clothes shop looked like an Earth fashion museum. Barbara scrutinized the antique articles of clothing one by one. Mini-skirts, leather jackets, berets. Her eye fell on a price tag reading: “REAL CHINCHILLA FUR. LAST PIECE LEFT ON EARTH. 1,000 GALLONS”. Barbara closed her quivering eyes as her tactile sensors induced a warm tickling feeling on her skin. Though she had to deactivate her olfactory receptors after smelling the acrid stench of preservatives gave off by the animal fur.
When the shop owner saw Barbara coming back empty-handed said, “Nothing piqued your interest, Madam?”
“Hmm, Mr.—” She narrowed her blue electric eyes to look at his name tag.
“Musk.”
“Mr. Musk, I was tempted by the chinchilla fur but I’m not after clothes…” Barbara winked at him.
“Oh, you should’ve told me right away.” He walked around the counter and started towards the stairs. “Please follow me.”
Barbara reached out for Dexter’s elbow and dragged him upstairs. Mr. Musk halted in front of a metal door with a “STAFF ONLY” sign on it. A miniature camera scanned his face and the door slid open. As a dim light switched on, their glassy eyes widened. Stasis pods stood on both sides of a long wide corridor.
“Please, take a pick.” Mr. Musk grinned at them and gestured towards the end of the corridor.
Barbara’s hands vibrated as she paced forward. She inspected each single specimen, twisting her square neck from left to right. Dexter tailed her wife and he shook his head at each price tag. 15,000 gallons, 20,000 gallons, 25,000 gallons. The younger the body, the higher the cost. Men more expensive than women.
“Your human collection is impressive.” Dexter turned to Mr. Musk, who stood by the door. “However, have you got anything fitting my budget?”
He started towards them, his three-fingered hand under his rubbery chin. “Human traffic is a costly business, you know.”
Mr. Musk walked past the couple and strode to the far end of the corridor. He paused in front of the very last hibernation chamber and waved his hand for the humanoid couple to come along.
“This is an authentic Afro-American, from North Carolina. He’s forty-six years old. It’d be twelve hundred gallons but can make it a thousand for you,” he said as they approached.
Barbara’s jaw clacked open as she marveled at the gigantic man. She peered at the name tag on the side which read: “GEORGE FLOYD. HIBERNATED IN 2020”.
Dexter moved closer; he tapped on his temple to adjust the magnifying lenses within his bionic eyes and examined the body’s black skin.
“So, what’s the scam?” He gazed at Mr. Musk.
“You know, black men were considered an inferior species back then.”
“Why?” Dexter’s eyes shone with curiosity.
Mr. Musk shrugged. “Just cause of the skin color.”
“That’s ridiculous. Anyway, money is all that matters—”
“As ridiculous as you were with Mrs. Bolt?” Barbara glared at her husband, who hanged his head down. Then, she held her hand out to Mr. Musk. “It’s a deal.”


© Antonio Salituro

​I Fear Myself by Kurt Russell

Growing up, my mind convinced me that I was in a bad living situation. I grew up with a single mother and the first memory I have of her is her laughing at me as I thought I was drowning in a bathtub (when I was around four or five years old). I remember sitting and splashing around in the tub as she stood by; then I started slipping and my head went under the water. I was crying as my hands couldn't grip the tub to get up and soap got in my eyes. Meanwhile, my mother just stood by and laughed instead of helping me. That was a very traumatizing experience to me at the time. As I grew older, I came to the realization that she wouldn't have actually let me drown, but as a child, that experience left a strong impression on me as my mind convinced me that my mother was not to be trusted. So throughout my childhood, I was paranoid; fearing my own mother. Our relationship suffered as a result, and we went through many conflicts that were unnecessary. At one point, I even managed to convince myself that she was not my biological mother and she was secretly poisoning me to keep me weak. It reached the point where I wouldn't eat until she ate from the same pot first. In reality, I was actually getting weak but not from her cooking (I had a sickness that I never realized was serious). She eventually proved to me that she was my real mother but the damage was already done, as I became introverted and spent most days locked in my room. Looking back, I gave my mother a really hard time; all because my mind was my own worst enemy.
By high school, I was a full-blown introvert but was often forced into situations where I had to socialize. I felt so broken and messed up at that point in my life that I decided to create a new persona for myself in my mind. I would walk around with a different image of myself in my head and that actually worked for a while, as a solution that helped me cope with anxiety. In keeping up with this new persona, I started referring to myself as 'JQ' as a nickname. It's crazy how by me conditioning my mind to believe that I was a different person; it allowed me to be more social, more confident, and less anxious. Over time, my personality almost completely changed, for the worse.

I eventually got mixed up with the wrong group of friends who got me involved with doing drugs. A part of me knew it was wrong but I thought I would be one of those persons that could manage their drug use. But eventually, I lost all control of the situation and lost control of myself. Needless to say, I got hooked and messed up. I couldn't help myself. It wasn't until a very close encounter with death (where I almost got shot) that I finally stopped. That was the moment where I decided to change, and though it took some time, I managed to change for the better. I used what money I had to move away and get a cheap place of my own. I also cut contact with all those 'friends' from my past life, in hopes to start afresh. I managed to get a job at a warehouse, which was great as I didn't have to interact much with other people. After a while, I got a better place and continued to live a quiet, secluded life. Although I felt lonely at times, it was great being reclusive and I thought I was doing better. Until... I got a girlfriend.

This girl just came into my life randomly. And looking back, it has become obvious to me that that was her intention. I was in love with this girl and it seemed like she loved me too. But I eventually found out that she had been using me and stealing from me. In hindsight, I should have known there was something sketchy about her as she never shared her past with me. I didn't really care much about that, as we all have parts of our past that we're ashamed of, though I opened up to her about mine. She ended up using my mental health against me by gas lighting me (making random noises then pretending not to hear anything) and playing games with my memory (misplacing my items). That whole period was mentally exhausting as I thought I was going crazy. And I felt lucky to have this girl by my side to help me get through it; only to find out that she was responsible for all of my problems. I had found out her true colors after coming home early from work one day and caught her taking food from my fridge and putting it in a bag. She tried to convince me that the food she was bagging had expired but I knew for a fact that she was lying. It was like as soon as I saw her in a different light, I managed to connect the dots and figure out her wicked ways. I remember my heart feeling like it had sunk after realizing that she was taking advantage of me. And her stealing my food was probably the least bad thing she did. I was mad and angry with her.

Which brings me to the most haunting night of my life. After I ended things with my girlfriend, I was so distraught that I decided to get high again for the first time in years. I did it to ease the pain. And I did it in the comfort of my own living room. The next thing I remember was waking up in my car parked near to a forest. I was so confused. And the scariest part is that I don’t know what happened or what I did for those hours that I lost. To this day, I have no remembrance of anything that happened that night. Sometimes I wonder if my 'JQ' persona came to life. Sometimes I wonder if my mind is playing tricks on me again. Sometimes I fear myself.


© Kurt Russell

Rosalyn Tempest by John Jones

This had never happened before. He had always caught the last train home from Halewood, but now all was silent at 23.46pm as he stood alone on the platform, staring along the tracks into the gloomy darkness of where the train should come from, where it did at 23.39.Meetings always went on late at the computer club he attended every Wednesday evening, but this particular night there were a few new members with plenty to say about their respective technology interests and he ended up leaving too late for the train to Edge Hill. Now here he was on a cold September night with seemingly the only way home was to pay an extortionate taxi fare.
At 68, widower, with three grown-up children, Bill Henderson was quite portly, balding and looked about five years older than he was. What if? he thought. What if it was late? It still could turn up. The moon tried its best to come out from behind dark, lazy clouds, and what little light it offered, hardly illuminated anything. Only the cold lights on the station platform failed to penetrate the surrounding gloom. He waited a few more minutes, silence pervading the atmosphere.
He was just about resigning himself to walking the streets to look for a taxi when he heard a low rumbling sound. A sound which grew louder, and in the distance a light appeared, growing nearer. Amongst the darkness he could see smoke, or steam billowing, and it emerged like a black bear coming out of a cave, a steam powered locomotive in no hurry, grinding to a halt with three carriages.
Bill simply stood there for a few moments, staring at it. Hammered into the front, a curved metal sign proclaimed, ‘Rosalyn tempest'. It seemed to be waiting for him, and he took a few tentative steps towards the nearest door, wondering for a few seconds if it was going to his station, but he decided that if it wasn't, he could still get off and hail a cab.
He opened the door and entered what could only be described as a first-class carriage. As soon as he closed the door, the train moved away, and he walked into what seemed to be Victorian splendour, yet there was nobody else here. There were several scarlet upholstered chairs and coffee tables with a lush carpet and wall lamps. It soon built up speed, and he sat down and relaxed as it passed through all the other stations until it finally ground to a halt at Edge Hill. He got off and closed the door, slowing down to stare at the train.
It stayed where it was, and still there was no sign of anybody, not even at the station. He left and walked the five minutes it took to get home. The following morning he was sat at the bar of the local pub he frequented; the image of the train fresh in his mind. He had told Mike, the barman about it who was quite a closet local historian, but he had never heard of the Rosalyn Tempest.
He went through to the back and emerged moments later with an iPad, and was soon surfing the internet for steam locomotives. Mike became engrossed for a while, and Bill simply sipped his bitter, enjoying the quiet atmosphere. “Here” Mike said, “I've found it. The Rosalyn tempest.
Manufactured in Bristol by Great western railway, the only one of its kind ever built, was given to Lancashire railways to use throughout the north-west, which it did for six years between 1925 and 1931 wherein it developed irreparable cracks in two of its wheels, rendering it dangerous to passenger safety, and considering there were no other parts that could fit it exactly, nor were they prepared to fix them, the decision was took to take it out of service altogether and replace it with two new standard locomotives.
The Rosalyn tempest ended its journey at Edge Hill station in 1931 where it was dismantled”. “Dismantled” said Bill. They both looked at the screen, at a picture of the very same train.


© John Jones

No Regrets by Felicity Edwards

The divorce had gone through. The three boys seemed to adjust to the new situation. The two eldest boys, Douglas and Tony, could cycle to the flat where their father had moved. As there was a major road to cross, the youngest boy, Jonty, could not go on his own, and the two big boys’ considered taking him was beneath their teenage dignity. However, his Dad came round to the house quite often. He had to as he brought his washing every week and collected whatever cooking his ex-felt like giving him. Everything went well until Mom met a guy. It drew the battle lines. Why? Well, the chap was a trans individual.
Douglas was in his late teens and since the divorce had sought solace with an ultra-Christian youth group. Tony, a couple of years younger, was more interested in music and the band, he and his friends, had formed. Both boys disliked the unaccustomed man in their lives as he was a teacher at their school. According to their ideas, teachers had no right to come into their home, had no right to make friends with them. It was very “uncool.” It delighted their father to allow them to spend more time at his place, especially as he had moved into a fancy new apartment block, which boasted a swimming pool in the complex. Their grandmother was also of a fundamentalist Christian outlook. She fed them stories about how this guy was an abomination, a freak and was leading their Mother into sin. Jonty, though, spent more time with his Mother and got to know Terry. Also, the religious bigotry of his elder brothers did not include him.
Their father continued with his whispers on the evil about to befall their Mother until she announced she would marry Terry. Both the elder boys gave her an ultimatum, leave Terry, or they would move in with their Dad. She was distraught. Her beloved sons were torturing her. Douglas was planning to go to university in the New Year and Tony the following year. She knew they were nearly ready to leave the nest. Even if she gave in to their demands, it would not be long before she and Jonty would be on their own. She refused to give in to bullying. They, with their father’s tacit agreement, moved out. She was heartbroken. Was life worth living? Jonty comforted her, the only bright light in a bleak world.
After the wedding, the new family of Terry and his son, Ben and Jonty and his Mom moved to another state. She worked hard to make things work, but nothing eased the pain in her heart. Things went wrong almost immediately. As a trans man, Terry needed regular hormone injections. Unfortunately, the side effect was highs and lows of aggression. Which he mostly directed towards his wife. Jonty flew to his Mother’s defence.
This cycle reached a point where Terry could not bear the sight of Jonty. Even suggesting he and his son would go on holiday, she could come but under no circumstances could Jonty. That was the signal. She waved father and son off and within hours, a removals truck pulled up. She and Jonty moved into other accommodation. She had to work extra hours to earn enough to cover their expenses, but they were happy. Not once did Jonty moan about the difficulties they faced. Instead, he flourished, even bringing his friends to visit. Something he had never dared during Terry’s reign of terror.
Mother and son became involved in a variety of activities to help people in the local community. Jonty willingly helped his Mother out by teaching an adolescent who had acquired his injuries by breaking a window and entering a property to steal. Instead of reporting him, they assisted him in learning to read and write so he could go to college and get a job rather than embarking on a life of crime. One Valentine’s Day, she took him to the flower market to collect the roses he had organised for the guys at school to distribute to their sweethearts.
Mother and son happily went for a midnight picnic away from the city lights so they could observe the sky and see Halley’s comet. Another highlight was a truant day. She drove them for hours up into the mountains where it was snowing. They made coffee by collecting and boiling the snow. They played snowballs and built a snowman. After all the miseries resulting from the second marriage and the move away, she wanted to give him some unforgettable, happy memories to last their lifetimes. Their bond grew closer. Then at the end of his last year of school, he announced he wanted to go to the university near where his Dad lived.
They talked things over and decided as the area where she worked was dangerous, it would be better if she moved somewhere safer. With Jonty’s blessing, she moved back to her homeland. She was lonely there but not broken-hearted that bond never changed. Whenever they got together, either he visiting her or she went back to visit him, they picked up where they had left off.
Later he met a girl. For his wedding, his Mom had to be there. Had to be with them for that important step in his life. His wife accepted the older woman in their lives. More often than not unseen. When their children came along once again, Mum had to be there. Mother and son understood distance might physically separate them, but that bond was as strong as ever. After she left Terry, the other boys made contact and visited, but the ties were not as strong as that with their younger brother.
She smiled when, on one of her visits, she heard Jonty telling his daughter all about the time he had seen Halley’s comet. It was still clear in his memory after all the years. She understood the importance of memories to strengthen a bond. She reminded him of the snow incident. “Ah, Mum, every time we go past that place, Windy Corner, I drive down the track to where we stopped all those years ago. I show the kids where we went that day and tell them about the fun we had there.”
She was happy to think a special bond would grow now between him and his children. There had been catastrophic days, but they had both survived and could look back without regrets.


© Felicity Edwards

The One That Got Away by Malina Douglas

Understand, I was ignorant. I did not yet know what love was, though my body responded easily to the trills of a strange new song. My intent was not to capture him—well, not exactly. At first I was merely curious, at the great dark shape that drifted through the water.
I pulled myself onto a rock to take in the great curved hull, the ghostly sails. That was when he saw me. He was resting his well-sculpted forearms on a long wooden rail, his outward gaze resting softly on the horizon. He turned. His eyes, dark, piercing, strange, bore into mine like a swift and sudden wave. A tingle stirred through me. I had no words—so I sang. Long melodious sounds poured out of me, sounds I had never before made, released by the feeling that stirred them. I expanded in a vast and far-reaching rapture, to thrill him, to extol him, to pull him nearer.
He leaned forward, his lips half parted, dark locks swirling at his temples. I caught him in a smile and his lips stretched outward like an opening oyster. Time froze. My cheeks heated and reddened. I sank beneath.
It wasn't my idea to call up a storm, it was Riora's, Riora who waited beneath, red-gold tresses billowing as she breathed through the gills at her neck.
I foolishly agreed, and, without considering what could happen, was taken by whim to stir up a little something--a harmless wind. I was unfamiliar with passion--I did not mean to put in so much of it, for it too quickly become a gale. We surfaced to watch. He had vanished from the deck. I held my breath as the ship tipped fore and aft.
It was not my idea to lead them to the rocks. Riora clenched my wrist and pulled me forward. I thought she was as sweet as her honey-dipped smiles. I could not see the selfish poison she concealed. I should've questioned her. Instead I followed.
Riora smiled and arched her proud back. We swam with our arms cresting the water, our heads aloft, our tails smacking the surface. I was not trying to be alluring, but that came as naturally as the hair that clung to my shoulders, and the pearls and shells I'd strung there. The ship followed.
I should've called out to her when the rocks rose up, high narrow and severe, but she was swimming with such resolve I could only trail behind her. I should've called out to the ship a warning--but the whirling winds would've snatched my frail voice. It struck more quickly than I expected--we heard the sickening, splitting sound of wood; saw figures dashing the madly pitching deck. It was breaking apart; men were falling and diving overboard. Riora became possessed with a fire I had never seen in her. When I turned back she had her arms laced around a man, wide-eyed and sun-bronzed. She kissed his gaping mouth as his feet kicked the water. I did not now then she had long had her eyes on him.
I swam through the bobbing wreckage, and my eyes could not help but seek him. He was keeping himself afloat with one arm around a barrel, dark hair plastered to the side of his pale face. His lips half-parted, his face pale as the moon. I saw a ray of hope enter his eyes when he saw me. I swam to him.
I won't describe our conversation, but it ended in an embrace as soft as a sea anemone. His lips yielded so easily—you can't blame me for wanting to keep him.
He clung to my arms so closely, so sweetly. Each time I pulled him under, he thrashed his way back to the surface. Perhaps I pulled a bit too hard. His fine mouth issued sounds and bubbles but I didn't understand them. It was the soft caresses that set my skin on fire, the liquefying kisses that drove me to pull him deeper. So this is love, I thought, burning in a flare of desire. I wanted to keep him forever.
I wanted to set him down in my shell chair, feed him kelp-wrapped eel bites and curl up with him every lonely day and night. How can you blame me?
The water grew inky; I knew the way by feel. That's why I didn't see his face. At first he squirmed quite insistently, but I kept a strong hold, and he soon became pliant.
It was only when I drifted through the coral archway of my chamber into the light of the twinkling glow-fish that I noticed his face was purplish and bulging. I fed him air through kisses, I shook him, I scratched him, but he would not stir. If only I hadn't been so forceful, but it cannot now be undone.
I learned he must come willingly for it to be love. I learned this as I held his limp body against a rock and pumped air into his lungs, but his skin was clammy; the brief light was out. I did not know that Riora had loosed her catch and guided the rest of the survivors to an island where they could go ashore.
I'd swum far away by then, to an outcropping of rocks jutting out of the sea. I slid the limp hair from his still, puffy face. Rested my head on the bend of my arm and stayed there, as waves crashed against black rock and my blue-scaled tail wavered in the water. If I'd known real love I would've realised it was not this. I was alone with silent terror of my mistake. I've never felt so cold beneath the moon.


© Malina Douglas

Grace’s High Note by Philip Charter

Honestly, the church has never had these gimmicks before. What’s happening to this parish? Being in the chair can make it difficult to meet people, so the summer fete is a blessed social event for me. It’s a shame to cheapen it with computer games. Dad wouldn’t be happy about it turning into such a circus. Then again, last time we came to church together was Palm Sunday; he’s too old to drive.
I told Father Steve that people like Victoria sponge and a few spins on the tombola. No need for bells and whistles. The Lord might turn a blind eye to a raffle, but he surely cannot condone the violence of a computer Battle Royale tournament.
We have a special relationship, Father Steve and I. Life has tested my faith, but he guides me. He works ever so hard for this community. I’m sure the parishioners gossip about us. We would make a smashing couple in another life.
The ground on the village green is uneven, so it’s hard to wheel between the stalls. My arms aren’t as strong as they used to be. It’s a lovely day though. The smell of freshly cut grass breezes over from the cricket pitch, and the sun’s not too bright. It’s wonderful to leave the house without a cardigan. I feel like I’m on holiday, but when I stop to take it all in, my thoughts are interrupted by noise from the loudspeakers.
Janice Beasley on jams and conserves gives me a push towards the tent HQ, where Father Steve is on announcing duties. “There you go, Jo,” she says, and leaves me outside the marquee. I think I can hear Father Steve.
“Twenty thousand V Bucks for the tournament winner. Sign up until three o’clock. Only ten pounds per player.” The prize is some kind of virtual currency I suppose.
I try waving. “Father Steve.” Nothing. I try again. “Father Steve. Psst.” It’s no good, I’m too low sitting here in my chair, and I can’t barge to the front of the queue. Judging by the group of twelve-year-olds lining up to register, he’ll be busy for a while. I’ll come back later.
A few stalls down, after the boxes of second-hand vinyl, and a child spinning around on a two-wheeled electrical deathtrap, a large wooden sign catches my eye. There’s a list of popular songs painted on the front — The Beatles, Cliff Richard, and even some religious songs. Behind it sits a woman a little younger than me, and far thinner. She’s wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat and white plimsolls.
“Hello there,” I say.
“Oh hello, madam. Are you interested in a song?” She motions towards the board.
“Well, I do like to praise the Lord with music.” She smiles and adjusts her hat over her short brown hair. “I’ve not seen you at church before.”
“Yes, I’ve been away. Quite exciting actually. I’ve been in Tokyo, at the convention.”
“For singing? All the way in Japan?”
She stands up for dramatic effect. “Whistling, actually.”
My confused expression leads her to point to the sign again. Grace The Whistling Wonder Woman: one song — £1, three songs — £2.
Honestly, who has heard of professional whistling? It’ll be belching next! “We can all whistle, can’t we?”
Her face tells me she’s heard that before. “I’m trying to show people that it’s a practised skill, a talent . . .”
“Well, it’s for a good cause. I better contribute, I suppose.”
“Lovely, feel free to sing along too. It’s part of the fun.”
The organ would make a better accompaniment, but I choose Jerusalem and pay my pound.
When the noise from the games tent dies down, she starts. I’m ready to sing along with my favourite hymn, but I can’t. My mouth remains open with no sound emerging. The same cannot be said for Grace. She hits the notes perfectly, changing between them with pinpoint precision. It’s like she’s playing an instrument. She controls the volume, adds vibrato for the longer notes, and weaves in some beautiful turns and ornaments. The high notes are cut-glass clear, but not piercing. She holds them steady. It really is graceful. I don’t want it to end. We are here together enjoying the moment — England’s green and pleasant land. It takes me a good few seconds to come back down to Earth and tune into the hustle and bustle of the fete again.
“Thank you so much,” I say. “I must say I was sceptical, but you really do have a talent.”
“I’m glad you enjoyed it. You’re right though, anyone can do it.”
I imagine myself taking a deep breath and blowing into a microphone as they must do at the competition in Japan. “Mmm, I prefer the security of the congregation in church when I sing.”
“We’re actually forming a group,” she says with an encouraging smile. “There are a few of us in the parish. We’re planning on meeting once a week.” A whistling choir. I wonder what the Lord would think of that in church. She roots around in her bag and hands me a flyer.
We get chatting and I forget all about Father Steve and the silly computer games. Then, she tells me about her attempt to wrestle the world record for the highest whistle note from the current holder.
“I’ve been training all year,” she says.
I’m not usually one for jokes, but I can’t resist. “I’m surprised the convention isn’t held in Whistler, Colorado.”
She laughs. “I haven’t heard that one before. Three days it is. Such a variety of whistlers, and a wonderful atmosphere.” Grace shows me some videos of the world champion Geert Chatrou on her phone. He’s marvellous
. He performs concertos in front of thousands of people.



***


I pour the tea for Father Steve and I. The sponge cake hasn’t turned out as I’d hoped. Not much has since the fete last summer. I’ve enjoyed being part of the whistling choir, but I haven’t been since Dad passed. I still can’t bring myself to say that he died. We’d been looking out for each other so long, I thought he’d always be here. Now it’s just me.
Father Steve makes that sympathetic expression people do, by tightening his lips. “How are you this week? Any thoughts on coming back to the group?”
He’s only been gone for six weeks but every day of silence in the house feels like a month. The carer looks in on Mondays, and Father Steve comes on Fridays.
“Your father would have wanted you to give a performance,” he says, “and the tickets are paid for. Let’s not let our hard work go to waste.” He looks at me like the Lord himself is peering through his eyes. “We miss having you at practice, Jo. Besides, we can’t find a replacement, not at this late stage.”
I flash forward to the sights of Tokyo — the neon street signs, the bullet train, Japanese officials ushering competitors from one place to another. But then, I’d imagined sharing all these pictures with Dad, just as Grace had shown me the video of the champion whistler at the fete.
Father Steve pats my hand and stands up. “I’ve got a little something to show you. Perhaps it will change your mind.” When he returns, Father Steve has a large frame. “Grace hoped you’d see this at practice, but it’s been so long . . .”
The sign read ‘This is to certify that Grace Henry recorded the highest pitched whistle by any person — measured at 5,476Hz, and adjudicated by an official World Records judge.’
“Well, I’ll be . . .,” I say. She’s left me speechless again! “That’s nearly an F8 note.”
Father Steve smiles. “Grace The Whistling Wonder Woman, eh?”
I feel embarrassed. I’ve been letting them down by not attending rehearsals. To think she’s been waiting all this time to tell me. So thoughtful.
“The funny thing is,” he continues, “some American chap beat her two days later. But, she can always say she held the record.”
“Bah, they can have a ‘whistle off’ at the conference,” I say. The good news is like a little boost of energy. “You should get practising on your low notes, Father.”
He chuckles. “Mmm, who has ever heard of a whistling duo?” But three, that’s a group.”
“The holy trinity,” I say.
Dad would have laughed at that one.
“So, you’ll come to practice this week?” he asks.
What is there to think about? “It would be an honour to whistle with a former record holder.” I suppose the sushi in Japan will taste better than my sponge cake anyway.




© Philip Charter

Bapaume III by Nick Fraser

Why he’d gone for the donkeys I don’t know. All of his other ‘business ventures’ had gone tits up so badly I’m surprised he hadn’t thrown in the towel before I was born. The escort agency; the billiard hall (a partnership with Joey Hart – whoever the fuck he was); the sandwich boards; the tram adverts; the American hamburger joint on the Golden Mile…the list seemed endless.
Nanna was understandably critical; mum was understandably protective, but when she spoke about him she was sad and probably a little confused. Let’s face it, he’d done nothing to cover himself in glory. He’d failed to support mum and me until the day he threw in the towel forever. Shame really. The bloke that was sold to me as my dad was Dick Turpin, Robin Hood, even Budgie Bird, but he was actually a selfish, dreaming piss-pot who’d struggled to feed himself, let alone his family. Wish I could really remember him properly though. He smelt of Embassy tipped and Double Diamond (apparently) and he wore a watch, a gold coloured one, which had his wrist hairs trapped in the bracelet. He used to tickle my neck with pincer-like fingers when I’d sit between his legs watching telly. He went out a lot and wasn’t there when I woke up in the morning a lot. He wasn’t a bad man – he just wasn’t a good dad; but like I say, I wish I could really remember him.

So why the donkeys? Jack Carnell was the name that kept coming up. He was a pre-war ponce who wore a tatty homburg and was rarely seen without a cheap cigar (Romeo and Juliet?) and sweat on his upper lip.

Mum was endless in her criticism of him and Nanna, who’d never been north of Peterborough, poured even more poison into the pot. I think the reasoning was that the shittier the company, the more of an arsehole my dad must have been. Suffice it to say, Jack was a fellow piss-pot and dad was no Dick Turpin – quite ironic really as DT was really a pock-marked horse thief hanged for little else.

Jack owned twenty-two donkeys, complete with harnesses, bells, blinkers, chains and straw hats. Mum told me that dad had thought he was a great laugh. He’d got him with the old one about what the donkeys on Blackpool beach have for their lunch: ‘About half an hour like everyone else,’ Jack had quipped. My dad was sold. It wasn’t Jack’s fault that the donkeys all died. He just sold them. It was Bapaume II who was responsible for that asinine mass murder.

It was hardly worthy of a Peter Schaffer play, but the script was equally tragic and entertaining. Dad had bought them for twenty-five pounds each. I’m not exactly sure what five hundred and fifty pounds was worth in nineteen seventy-six compared to now, but I’ll bet it won’t have been far short of about seven or eight thousand quid.

Passbook in hand and four pints under his belt, he led Jack to a Post Office round the corner from Stanley Park, its flagpole leaning awkwardly in the other direction as if to warn him to walk the other way. The money changed hands and Jack buried it in his money belt, inside layers of flab, pullovers and several dark overcoats. After shaking hands, the two men customarily returned to the pub from whence they came.

Now here it is. At six o’clock, four pints later, Jack led my dad over to the stables where he kept the beasts of burden. With bells and harnesses he and dad tacked them up and took them down to the beach. Jack thereby showed my dad the basics of donkey handling: how to move them; turn them; feed them; water them; wash them; stable them; discipline them and even stop fat kids from riding them too hard.

My dad was happy. Happy and purposeful. In the letter to my mum found on his body, he told her how he had led the whole train of twenty-two donkeys up and down the beach opposite the tower until dusk. At eight thirty he got a thirst on him, but he still wanted to show his new toys off to his drinking buddies, so he chained them up to the promenade wall.

As he entered the boozer Georgie Marr was propped up against the bar. He saw his smug face sunk deep into a pint of Guiness and made his way over to the big Irish bastard. He ordered a pint and once he’d taken a satisfactory slurp, he let his elbow brush gently against the colossus.
‘Oh, it’s you,’ mumbled the labourer from Cork.
‘I’ve got a surprise for you Georgie.’
‘For a cunt with such a stupid name you’re a cocky –
‘Cunt?’
‘Aye. Cunt.’
‘Donkeys Georgie.’
‘What?’
‘Donkeys.’
‘What d’yer mean saying donkeys? Yer daft bastard.’
‘I’ve bought twenty-two donkeys.’
‘Not from that daft twat Carnell?’
‘Yeah. Why?’
‘Nothing.’
‘No, come on. What do you mean nothing?’
‘I mean nothing. Now leave me and my pint alone and fuck off!’

My dad approached the dartboard and scratched his name onto the battered blackboard next to it. Joey Hart threw the last of his three darts at double one and then caught him by the sleeve.
‘Donkeys?’
‘Yeah, donkeys,’ said dad.
The reply was pretty much the same all night long. It turned out that Jack had been trying to off-load the beasts for some time. It would seem that every piss-pot in Blackpool had said no apart from my dad.

By half past ten dad was rat-arsed and then the lock-in started. The stakes went up with each game of darts and the money for illicit beer went into the pint glass behind the bar; each punter so grateful for every pint that tasted sweeter than those bought before the bell.

That’s about as much as we know, apart from the obvious. Dad was found dead next to his dead donkeys. The police were able to confirm that much. After waking up at dawn on a bench on the prom, he must have gone to check on his forgotten acquisition. His findings caused him to ram his penknife through his eye into his brain. He probably bled and suffered a great deal, before he keeled over on top off the sodden, swollen beasts.
He’d secured them to the sea wall on a chain with ten feet of slack. While he was sleeping it off on the bench, the tide had come in to a depth of fifteen feet at the wall. God only knows what the poor creatures had gone through at the time.

The police found his blood-soaked body draped over the rigid corpses of his last throw of the dice. The letter, written in pencil on both sides of a Ladbrokes betting slip and addressed to my mum, was found in the inside pocket of his jacket. Finding his new and last venture so utterly wretched must simply have been too much for him to bear. My selfish, pathetic, pitiful, one-eyed dad.


© Nick Fraser

No Longer by Emily Kate Hastings

No-longer-living things are everywhere in this house.
They shouldn’t be shocked by this. Not really. Not if they thought about it. No-longer-living things sit in their sinks too, and hide in their medicine cabinets, parade upon their countertops, loiter in corners of garages, and drape apathetically over their chairs. Capitalist clutter fills up every curve of their homes, objects composed of the once alive: wine corks, rapeseed oil, and violin strings, to name a just a few.
I needed something garish, a salient signal of a living thing. I bought a Pathos—a hardy plant that featured intense pure green leaves in the shape of little hearts, the kelly-green shade of a tree frog or shamrock—it was obnoxious enough, perhaps. I positioned several variations of the trailing houseplant along the top of the kitchen cupboard, the living room mantle, and within hanging baskets around the house. Vibrant green leaves marbled with pigments of yellow, cream, and sometimes silver: the vine-like plants told stories of having been plucked from a charmed jungle. I’d soon buy more trailing plants: Ferns, Ivy, and Wandering Jew.
I cursorily smeared the dust and cleaning spray across the medicine cabinet mirror. It had been some time since I surveyed the assemblage of ointments, gauzes, bandages, and pill bottles. Most people don’t realize that gelatin is often used in coatings of capsules, or that lactose is a common active ingredient in over-the-counter drugs. I slumped my arm onto the counter and dragged a pile of dental floss and cosmetics into a drawer (both are made from the wax of a tree). I grabbed the sponge and swabbed it around the bathtub, its package had boasted the fact that it was biodegradable, made from wood pulp and cotton. No-longer-living things are everywhere, and I scurried to tidy them up.
I had time to prepare for the visit, I can’t say that I didn’t. But time gets away from you, and I was rushing. Broom, where’s the broom? I swept dust and hair from beneath the corner chair. We all have dust in our homes, don’t we? Dust, the unknowable blend of bits of this world: dirt, pollen, specks of plastic, clothing fibers, morsels of dead bugs, animal dander, and sloughed-off skin cells. Dust was not so out of the ordinary. But I should hide the hair.
I used to have beautiful hair, all down my back. I would return home from a day by the Atlantic ocean, delighted to see that saltwater and laughter had fashioned full and thick waves of my auburn hair, a look striking and effortless, the envy of every pin straight-haired girl whose locks were dull and lifeless.
Throughout history hair has been used in the production of thread, rope, and cloth; textile manufacturers have used it to produce worthwhile items such as carpets, socks for submarine crews, and mattress stuffing. Hair is a valuable item. So really, if they thought about it, they would know that a collection of human hair isn’t so strange.

Five dustpans full. It was more hair than I realized. I shuffled to the kitchen to grab another garbage bag from under the sink. Kneeling was getting harder.
As I laboured my way back up the hall, the puddle caught my eye. The wooden chest at the foot of my bed was leaking again.
It would certainly be irrational to experience distress at the thought of getting rid of accumulated items regardless of their value—that I can concede. But these items were extremely valuable to me, and I could not discard them. That being said, I did not want them detected by my visitors, nor could I risk that a visitor should stumble upon one by accident.
So I wrapped each one, tenderly and cleverly, in garbage bags and blankets, and made spaces for each. A box of handknit baby clothing; another full of old birthday cards, sheet music, and empty sketchbooks; a drumhead from a trip my uncle had gone on, stretched from the hide of a goat; and a cup of bone china, made of ceramic mixed with animal bone ash—those were items that were taking up room. I needed to make space—the trunk, the case, the closet. They would never need to look in those places. Instead, they would comment on my thriving new houseplants and talk about the weddings and pregnancies of girls I used to know.
Traditionally, violin strings were formed of catgut (sheep intestine) wrapped with silver or copper wire. Though gut strings are no longer commonly used, certain violinists prefer this variety because of its warm and complex tone.

I no longer owned a violin. I had to discard the instrument for the storage its case provided me. Unlike the wooden trunk, a violin case was well lined and proofed for leaks.
Bows, my violin teacher had explained, were made from a hank of horsehair. I used to play violin all the time. But then, the muscles in my neck became sore, strained. That was some time ago.
I needed to hurry. They would be here soon.
I knew they loved me, they did. Or cared about me in some way, at least. But I had changed, had been changing for a long time. My voice no longer sounded the same, my eyes had changed colour, and much of my body was no longer living. I knew they would not understand.
The lid of the trunk was heavy. I lifted with my arm and angled my body to take its weight on my shoulder. I struggled under the mass as I tried to reach my arm into the chest while propping open the lid. Shit. The weight of the wood fell hard. I pulled my arm from the trunk as fast as I could, but it was too late. I no longer even felt a sharp pain when this happened, more like the sensation of a fingernail being clipped off. The digit fell to the floor. Damnit.
My left arm, my right foot, my hair, and now my last thumb. These items are extremely valuable, indispensable. Well, they used to be. When I am honest with myself, I know they are no longer living, and I cannot figure out how to turn them into something of use.
I did my best to tidy up. I hid the garbage bag of hair in the closet with the other ones. I threw a large wool blanket over the trunk, making sure it touched the floor to conceal the dried blood. The violin case rested in the corner, no need to keep it out of sight; no one asked me to play anymore anyway. No-longer-living things are everywhere in this house.
I heard the knock at the door. The visitors were here.


© Emily Kate Hastings

The Well by Patricia Furstenberg

The monk glided like a bat inside Putna Monastery, north of Romania. His black cassock floated, his cylindrical hat bowed, its dark veil flapping over hunched shoulders like wings against the night sky. And just as silent. His eyes were cast on the stone path but his mind was alert, churning memories of a night thirty years back. He was an apprentice, following his abbot along the same trail.Then, the mid-winter bit his toes inside peasant soles, opinci. Tonight, his footsteps were hushed by summery snowflakes. The apples lining the monastery’s pathways had bloomed a second time. Monks whispered it was God’s promise against another war. He knew better. Apples do bloom twice. Wars do happen.
Then, they surged through thick fog, a God-sent, the abbot said.
A familiar candle scent revived his frozen nostrils, filling his lungs with the familiar as he opened the church doors. The abbot prayed, walls embraced his whisper.
Why sneaking?
Frankincense enveloped them as they advanced past the dignitaries’ graves; the abbot ahead, a sure footing. He, shrinking in his cassock as an echo and not angry whispers rose from the graves.
A whisper of pardon brushed his ear, an auditory sign that his leader kneeled by the Virgin’s icon, Putna’s patron.
The saints watched from the church’s dome. How was he serving Him?
‘Wait,’ the abbot disappeared inside the altar.
How bright their eyes! Were their lips moving?
The abbot pushed a bundle towards him. The air forced out of his lungs reached the heavenly dome with a sigh. The cloth felt honeyed under his calloused hands. His thumb brushed a thread sewn in the familiar cross pattern. A chill of realization flared like a silenced scream, spilling over his body, locking his stomach in a knot. He had hand-washed that treasured cloth in preparation for Christmas Mass. The autumn sunlight lacked vigor, yet gold and silver threads gleamed like jewels while the fabric’s watery pattern glowed like the sacred light of the Promised Land.
The Blessed Pall!
‘Speak of this to none,’ said the abbot and even the church walls seemed to approve his words, for they swallowed them. ‘Swear.’
His head bowed. A hand dropped on his shoulder like David’s stone crushing a blade of grass. His knees hit the stone. His clasped hands pushed the precious parcel against his boyish heart, throbbing inside its rib cage. A fervent prayer escaped his lips like the wooden beads of a rosarium.
He stood a different man, his innocent love for God a flaming sword in his heart. His hands, the hands he swore to serve only God with, held the kingly crowns of Virgin Mary and Jesus, crowns fashioned from the gold of past royal tiaras, adorned with five hundred pearls, rubies, sapphires, amethysts.
He helped a thief steal them.
The flaming sword reached his throat, forcing the air out through his lips. The words that left his mouth were a dragon’s breath against stone walls.
‘Thief!’
The abbot stood, a shadow against the moonlight peering through the apse window.
‘Shush,’ it urged, slanting under the burden of a crate.
‘We’re stealing…’
‘Be still,’ it closed in.
‘…from God’s House!’
‘Enough.’
Sometimes the weight of a physical burden renders a moral load manageable. The abbot dropped the metal crate, crushing the young forearms between two loads.
He still felt the abbot’s fingers grabbing his neck, as cold as death against his fiery skin. He still felt his raspy lips against his earlobe. As they parted words became vapors and, when their meaning penetrated his young mind it condensed to ice that rolled through his veins, smothering that flaming sword.
They left the church carrying an iron chest with its velvety treasure, disappearing in the fog shrouding the church walls. And, like tonight, they reached the well where a man in peasant attire waited, a boy’s hand in his.
The peasant bowed in respect for the robe and the House it represented and the boy mimicked. And a familiar ritual unfolded. The monk blessed the child. The father kneeled and squeezed the boy in a hug.
The boy felt the familiar scent of wood, sweat, tar, the marks of a carpenter he associated with safety, and the sweet blossoms. And he wondered, as with everything that happened that night. But he knew, there was a time for everything and now it was for obeying.
‘You can do this, Ioane. What I told you?’ whispered the man.
‘Good heart, good will,’ said the boy.
The man enjoyed the feel of fat padding underneath the boy’s summer shirt. The childish scent, still unspoiled. He sat the boy atop the fountain’s bucket, the legs coiled around the metal chain. Small, sturdy hands grabbed the metal snake.
One more pulling onto the fountain’s chain verified its strength. He’d made it twice as sturdy last he’d worked on, and the carpenter grabbed the massive wheel when the monk’s gesture froze the time.
Remembering his abbot, the monk revealed his cassock’s leather girdle, signifying the strength of truth, the soul’s renewal. He removed it, securing it around the boy’s waist, looping it through the chain, like his abbot back then.
Four turns and the bucket reached the desired depth, the boy suspended three meters under.
When he resurfaced he held a moldy bundle. The monk remembered the gold thread of the Blessed Pall gleaming on Easter morning, joyful symbols that Putna had done without for thirty years.
‘Take them,’ he said. ‘Keep them safe. May God protect and guide you.’
With the parcel underarm and a grateful heart for the feel the small body against his hip, the peasant left.
It was July 1940. A full moon reigned, the heavens were open, and earthly treasures gone in the night. Before the Red Army pushed through a state border it had no respect for. Before it reached their sanctuary. ‘It was bad with der, die das, but it’s worse with davai watch.’ Everyone knew Red Ivan stole everything.


© Patricia Furstenberg

Yogurt Man Street by J. Anthony Hartley

Back then, Istanbul in the summer months was a place of sounds and smells. It had colour, but it was the colour of cut watermelons and the flash of silver fish in the garbage-strewn water of the Bosporus. Water is a funny thing there. Like everything else, it lasts for only so long. We were told not to drink it straight from the faucet, so we purchased huge thick glass bottles in old wicker baskets. In the summer, it would be barely days before the green moss would start growing on the insides of the glass. We wondered why we bothered. Our rented apartment sat at the top of a hill, at the end of Yogurt Man Street. The place was full of names like that. We were renting from the man who lived in the penthouse apartment, a Turk with ice-blue eyes, Selim Bey. He had a doughy face, always covered with a slight sweat sheen. The smell of lemon cologne wafted after him like a cloud. Colours and smells. We were good enough for him to take our foreign money if nothing else.
The cobbles of Yogurt Man Street ended at the hard-packed earth of our yard, dry and brown. Tomato plants and chilies grew against stakes along the centre. I often thought about an actual yogurt seller walking up Yogurt Man Street, his flat metal pans dangling from the yoke across his shoulders, and swaying slightly back and forth as he walked, his flat cloth cap pulled down on top of his head as a statement to Ataturk's changes. But it rarely happened. The hill was steep, and we bought our supplies from foreign shops or had them come in trucks from the Netherlands.
At one end of the yard sat the apartment block, tall, white, and new. Directly opposite, at the other end, sat the old house, behind a wall of oleander bushes. The place had been abandoned for years. Vast, wooden, and mysterious, it sat at the end of the yard and threatened with what it might hold. At one time, a section had projected into the yard -- a back room of some sort -- but the wooden parts had long gone. We used to pick away at the surrounding foundation bricks with sticks, searching for the shiny black scorpions hidden between the cracks. It was a thrill and a dare, all at once. The scorpion is like a spider, fascinating with the risk it holds, just like the house at the bottom of the yard.
I remember standing at the base of the hill on a winter's night, the wind whipping shadows from the branches and the single street lamp at the top. I stood frozen, watching the old empty house, its bulk leaning perilous and dark over the narrow, cobbled street. I stood there for what seemed an eternity, until finally I closed my eyes and ran.
An English family lived in the apartment next to ours -- the Watsons. They had two boys and a girl. It was the older boy, a year my senior, who taught me how to catch scorpions and keep them in a matchbox, and it was he who first dared me to go into the old house. He dared me although our parents had warned us away from the place.
"It's dangerous," they would say. "Just stay right away from it." Which only gave it that extra tinge of excitement for a growing boy. Who knew what treasures we might find lurking within its cracked and faded boards? Each day after school, we would slip inside, the three of us, and search for riches hidden within the walls. We picked away at the plaster with sticks and fingers, searching for the hidden spaces behind. When we found nothing, we started on the floorboards.
We improvised, using whatever we could lay to hand: lengths of timber, a garden rake. And we pried and worried those floorboards until one by one they yielded. Holes began to appear between the floors, and we had to pick our way treacherously over gaping traps. The floor became less, and our confidence grew as the old house submitted to our will. There was still no treasure. When finally there was hardly any flooring left, we started demolishing the walls, taking swinging strikes at the plaster, and leaping back as huge lumps fell and puffed up clouds of dust that sparkled in the shafts of sunlight lancing through the walls. We struck at the plaster-daubed slats with enthusiasm, revelling in every thump and crash.
One day, I was on the upper floor, in the section that leaned perilously out over Yogurt Man Street's cobbles, when Mark called out from below.
"Come and look at this."
I peered out of the upper story window, or what was left of it, but could see nothing that would attract his excitement. He must have found some treasure within!
I raced down the rickety staircase to the room below. He was standing, his face pressed up against a hole in the outer wall. Then he giggled. I pressed myself into the space beside him.
Across from the derelict house, high above the street sat another -- old wooden boards and balconies and windows -- but people still lived over there. I couldn't see what was so funny.
"Over there. Look at that window. Do you see her?" He giggled again.
I looked to where he was pointing, and I saw. Behind a dirt-filmed window stood a girl. She was much older than we were. She wore a creamy yellow sweater and a black skirt. Long black hair fell around a plump pale face. And then she waved and smiled. I pulled back from the hole in the wall, flustered and feeling guilty.
"Come back," said Mark. "Look!"
She was still there. And then she started to dance -- a belly dance -- and she was dancing just for us.
We must have stood there for over half an hour, until she finally looked over her shoulder, smiled and waved, then disappeared from view. After a time, we dragged ourselves away from the hole, flushed and excited. She had danced there in that window, just for us.
A week passed before we had the chance to enter the old house again, but though we kept returning to the hole in the wall, the grime-streaked window across the street remained blank. The next day we were disappointed yet again.
Two days later, in the early morning, a combination of age, the elements and our ministrations proved too much for the old house. A mighty crash from outside the apartment building reverberated through the neighbourhood. The noise dragged us all from breakfast and we leapt up and raced outside to see. Whether it would have happened anyway, or whether the amount of floor and wall material we had removed over the months finally tipped the balance, we will never know. The old house had given up the ghost, and had fallen, a pile of timber, tiles, and plaster, down into Yogurt Man Street below. As we stood there speechless with the enormity of what had happened, the dust cloud slowly settled above the brown and orange pile.
We could have been in it when it went. We could have been crushed beneath the tumble of wood and nails and clay. But we weren't. Mark and I looked at each other with wide-eyed expressions. We weren't thinking about the danger we had escaped.
And though I didn't know it then, I know it now. In that brief time, the old house had revealed to us its treasure; an ephemeral treasure that now lay buried and hidden beneath the rubble on Yogurt Man Street never to be seen again, but one that will last forever.


© J. Anthony Hartley

Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover by Andrew Ball

Sheila lay back beside him under the star-studded sky, closed her eyes, and thought about photons. And not just any old photons; the ones she’d come to think of as her photons. The ones that had traveled trillions of miles from her favorite star to impale themselves on her retina and deliver their tiny message: ‘Here I am.’ She marveled at their stamina: for hundreds of years they’d flown in a perfectly straight line if you ignored gravitational lensing, never resting -- never even slowing down! -- avoiding all obstacles until, right at the very end of their epic journey, they hit... her eyelids! Abruptly, she opened her eyes. “Hey! Cut it out! Is that all you ever think about?”
Rowan withdrew his hand.
“But I thought you liked me...” he said.
‘So did I, once upon a time,’ she thought, sadly.
“... and it’s been weeks since the last time we... you know.”
The plaintive tone around the edges of his voice grated on her nerves. She wondered what words he’d been planning to use before resorting to telepathy: ‘...had sex’? ‘...been intimate’? ‘...made love’? No, knowing him it was probably ‘...F-bombed’. Had they ever really made love? Or been truly intimate, for that matter? The feeling of detachment took her by surprise. What was wrong with her this evening?
“I thought you liked me, Sheil,” he repeated, fishing for reassurance.
“Um...” she said, her feelings in sudden turmoil. If only that last time could be the last time. She couldn’t take much more of the snort he always gave as he crossed the finish line. ‘Like a rutting stag claiming its mate,’ she thought. Perhaps all men did that? God, she hoped not! She didn’t have much experience of men -- Rowan was her first and, so far, her only -- but she knew she couldn’t handle a lifetime of snorting. And she hated being called ‘Sheil.’ ‘What’s wrong? Two syllables one too many for you?’ she thought.
“Look, Sheil, there’s our star,” he said, struggling to regroup.
Early in their relationship -- back in the romantic era -- they’d picked out a personal star from amongst the myriad. She’d long since forgotten which one it was.
“Mmm...” she said, thinking about photons again. She felt she understood them perfectly. That wave/particle business? She totally got it; that was her! At good times, she felt herself spread out across the Universe, a ripple in the space-time continuum. And now? Now she was as tightly wound as a grain of sand.
‘Time to cut bait,’ said a voice inside her head, startling her and sending a shot of adrenaline coursing around her body. Over the years, she’d learned to listen to that voice; it seldom steered her wrong. But what could she say? And was this the right moment to say it... whatever it turned out to be? She was new to this.
How about: ’I think we should start seeing other people?’ Untrue; she didn’t want to see anybody, ever again. Tears prickled her eyelids.
‘It’s not you, it’s me?’ Untrue also; it was him, all right. Oh, where was a good cliché when you needed one? Inside her head, Paul Simon began to sing:
‘There must be fifty ways to leave your lover.
You just slip out the back, Jack;
Make a new plan, Stan.
You just gotta go, Ro,
And let me be free.’

“What are you thinking about?” he asked.
“Photons,” she lied. ‘Coward!’ she thought.
“Huh?”
“You see Cassiopeia up there...”
“Who?”
“The constellation, dummy! There, in the northeast,” she pointed. “That ‘W’-shaped ast... group of stars.” Instantly regretting ‘dummy’, she swerved to avoid compounding the error by saying ‘asterism’, the word she had lined up in her mind, all ready to go.
“What about it?” He sounded hurt.
“Well, the star in the middle is called Cassiopeia Gamma, and it’s about 550 light-years away.”
“So?”
“So that means when we look at it, we’re linked by an unbroken stream of photons three thousand, two hundred and thirty-three trillion miles long; and the ones reaching us tonight started their journey around the year 1470.”
“Cool! Then you and I can see the same photons.”
“No, not unless you get inside my head and share my optic nerve.”
“It’s not your head I want to get into,” he said, carelessly sealing his own fate.
‘No,’ she thought. ‘That’s the problem. That’s always been the problem.’
“Come on, Sheil; let’s fool around.”
That did it. Like a collapsing wave function, she suddenly knew exactly where she was and what she needed to say.
“You know, Ro, some of those stars we’re looking at don’t exist anymore.”
“Say what?”
“They’ve died, Ro. A long time ago, some of them.”
“Then how come we can still see them?”
“You just haven’t got the message yet. That stream of photons? It’s draining itself onto your retina like water down a rat-hole and closing your eyes won’t stop it. When it’s gone, it’s gone.”
“So, which are the dead ones?”
“That’s hard to tell, but there’s one I’m sure of.”
Lying beside her, he was suddenly very still.
“Which one’s that?”
“Our star, Ro. Our star is dead.”


© Andrew Ball

Special Recollections by Bryan Smith

There was no contest! It was clearly the proudest moment of his life, as he sat holding her hand in the specially assigned room in Whitehall. As they waited patiently for the ceremonials to begin Mark’s thoughts wandered back to his early childhood. He had been too young to remember the house move from the picturesque small village of Milton Keynes to the nearby town of Bletchley. Many years later he reflected on how names of a poet and an economist could be combined to give title to such a pretty village.Alas, it was no longer so.
The house move had been unavoidable, when, following his father’s death on the beaches of Dunkirk, the meager army pension had been insufficient to prevent a move into council accommodation. While never knowing his father, his mother had ensured his knowing of him through frequent references to his army career and earlier life. He had been a captain in the Warwickshire Infantry, with his last act being that of ensuring that as many of his men as possible reached safety of the boats during the evacuation. One of his earliest boyhood memories had been, when, with his mother, they visited her sister who lived on the north side of Rugby. He remembered the big red glow in the sky, his mother holding him in her arms, as they gazed out through a bedroom window.
‘The Jerries’ have bombed Coventry. By god they’ll pay for that’ He recalled the anger in her voice. They did of course; a few years later at Dresden.
When he had started school, he wasn’t the only fatherless child in the class, but no other pupil could claim a captain as their dead dad. Some of those with dads away at war talked proudly of them, and he guessed, with some exaggeration, but importantly, seeing them as role models. For him, that was a big gap in his young life, which he tried to compensate for, in part by cultivating a strong interest in the progress of the war; an interest which his mother encouraged by informing him of key events and campaigns; the Battle of Britain, the Blitz, Anzio, the Eastern front, the Battle of the Bulge, the Dam-Busters, and ultimately D Day and V E Day. Sharing his knowledge at school had seemed to confer upon him a sort of authority. Classmates asked him things and if he couldn’t provide immediate answers he soon could after talking to his mum. After all, he rationalized to himself, with my dad having been a captain, I should be able to show pupils a lead on things.
In addition, his mum had helped him to identify with another role model, William Brown, of Just William fame. She frequently read to him from the Crompton books at bedtime. Consequently, he recognized with William as his captain, and decided to take on both the title and role with his gang. Like William, he organized things, games, challenges. For Geoff, a ginger nut, in his gang, some pupils were merciless in their name - calling. He sorted them out and stopped Geoff getting bullied. There was ‘his Violet’ and occasionally he’d playfully pull her pigtails. She got to not mind much, but if anybody picked on her he thumped them. After the war in the seemingly endless winter of ’47, he organized sledging competitions with his gang; a captain’s role. He even allowed non - gang members to join in and often showed his authority by winning. He recalled it was also when he saw and ate his first banana. He remembered holding it up and saying, ‘Is this one of the fruits of war?’ A year later he identified with other role models when his Uncle Pete bought him Huckleberry Finn for his birthday. Along with Tom Sawyer he found them to be rebel achievers, go - getters, occasional chancers, but with good hearts. He could envisage them as getting on well with William, fitting in. The fact that they were from the US, which had arrived very late for the war, wasn’t something he would hold against them. A real clincher was that he and the author had the same first name. It had to be a plus, he concluded.
One post - war hardship was the occasional coal shortages, which discriminated in favour of miners, with their special allowances, and included both of their next door neighbours. This meant that with no coal there were limited supplies of coke for sale at the gas yard on a designated Saturday morning. His gang were prominent with trolleys, and while it became quite a procession through the estate, with women pushing old prams and pushchairs, they couldn’t compete with the speed of his trolley gang. Consequently, they would be close to the front of the queue. Then in the afternoon they would be at the front of the queue for the sixpenny matinee at the Regal.
As well as reading to him as a child his mum encouraged him in all his schoolwork. She also played lots of games with him. Cards were her favourite, teaching him Whist and Bridge. She took him to Whist Drives, which, while for adults, made an allowance with his mum being on the committee. He also accompanied her on bridge evenings with friends. Then there was Chess; she taught him the rudiments, he joined a club at school,
but not once could he beat her.
When, at eleven, he shared his anxiety about possibly failing the eleven plus, after discussion, she suggested he did his ‘William thing’ by taking a lead. The seed was planted. Talking with classmates the following day; those he recognized as the brightest, he shared his concern, mainly about not being stretched enough or worked hard enough to be in a strong position to pass. He also pointed to the fact that five had been the highest number of passes from the school in any year. As he did so he cast his eyes around, slowly at the ten others. Unsurprisingly, he became the spokesman in a group meeting with the form teacher. Following some initial amazement, of a group of pupils asking for more work, the teacher responded very positively. A few cursed him afterwards in response to the pressure of two months extra work, but the initiative worked, with a record - breaking nine passes.
As he glanced down at her bag on the floor beside her chair, he saw the tell - tail sign.
‘Another crossword book’ he whispered. She chuckled.
‘I’d completed the Times and Telegraph by eleven. What ever was I to do? I’ve also picked up a book of mind games; quite stimulating’
‘Just as if you need it.’ He rolled his eyes. Having spent over twenty-five years with the MOD, with the last five in Intelligence, Mark was probably the only person in the room who hadn’t needed to sign the document, similar to The Official Secrets Act.
‘How gullible could I have been down the years’ he reflected. He had said how he thought she had been too clever to be a secretary in a council office in town. But she had claimed, having a steady secure job was quite enough.
Then the ceremony started. She gripped his arm and kissed him on the cheek.
Achievements at the Park started to be described. There were lots of nods and smiles round the room.
‘It wasn’t all about Enigma’ the Brigadier General then said. ‘It was Ultra and Collossus’ There was a stifled cheer from along the front row and as Mark looked along the row, he recognized Daphne, another secretary and occasional Bridge partner of his mum. She was holding up and shaking her frail hand in a triumphal gesture.
‘Ladies Please!’ the speaker said, in a mild scolding tone before continuing. ‘Collossus, with Alan’s team in Hut 4, was aptly named, since its significance towards the end of the war was massive’
He watched as his mum, Daphne and two other elderly women along the row all did a thumbs-up, with delighted looks shared among them. It was as if they were excited schoolgirls about to be given an award for team success.
The speaker continued. ‘It was said that through Collossus, Hitler could have communicated quicker with all his generals through Bletchley Park than through any other channel’.
There was a collective roar of approval and celebratory stamping of feet, to which the Brigadier General just nodded and smiled. As it became her turn to receive her award, she turned to him. ‘Hold my stick. I think I can make those two steps onto the stage without it.’
‘Of course, you can mum!’ As he watched proudly on, he said to himself ‘What did you’re your mum do during the war Mark? She was a secretary, a very important job!’
‘Some secretary mum. You code-breaking junkie’


© Bryan Smith

The Cardinal Sins by JB Polk

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.


© JB Polk

Most Marriages Performed by Leah Holbrook Sackett

'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.


© Leah Holbrook Sackett