Short Fiction ~ Rachel O’Cleary
First Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 9
She grips the rough bark between her knees, grunting as she reaches higher, hands already pink and stinging. Splinters pierce her palms and thighs, but she continues, eyes reaching up, only up.
She stops. This is it. This is the one. She hoists one leg over the branch and stretches - head out, toes curled against the trunk.
The branch wobbles, but she hugs it tightly, inhaling earthy bark and tangy orange leaf. Her heart stops walloping and settles instead into a smooth roll. She rests, eyes half-open, and breathes with the tree. In. Out. In.
Mum is nowhere to be seen. Her car is in the driveway, but no healthy snack awaits them on the table, no strident voice orders them out of their uniforms.
Their calls race round corners and up stairs.
It is the boy who finds her, being just young enough to think of looking for his mother in a tree. His sister doesn't believe him, but not knowing what else to do, she finally comes. Her eyes, round and clear as bubbles, rise to meet her mother's.
The boy giggles and shrieks at Mummy's game, but the girl only tilts her head. Her body stills, as if she is approaching a stray cat.
“It's OK, Mum,” she coos. “You can come down now.”
Mum grips the tree tighter and twitches her head slightly. Her eyes rest on the children for a moment, then close.
He finds them sitting beneath the tree, chins tilted up. The boy is no longer having fun. He wipes the tears from his pink cheeks with his sleeve so Dad won't see.
They tell him they have begged, promised good behaviour, even tried to tempt her down with chocolate.
He cranes his neck.
“Come on now,” he calls. “What are you playing at? Look at the children – who will take care of them?”
She meets his stare, but says nothing, moves not a millimetre.
“Shit,” he says. Goes to the shed.
When he returns, saw in hand, the girl jumps up, pushes against him frantically.
“No!” she shouts. “No, leave her! I'll make dinner. I'll put him to bed. Just leave her!”
He brushes past.
The chainsaw roars to life, and he stands holding it, watching his wife in the tree. Waiting. She doesn't blink.
He finds the crotch in the tree that holds up her branch and presses the blade in. The whine of the saw becomes a deep growl. A puff of pale sawdust leaps from the tree and softly floats down to earth. He withdraws, pauses again. The children wail, mouths open, but he cannot hear them. His eyes lock on hers.
Blade returns to branch, woodchips flying in all directions. The roaring and swirling mounts as the blade pushes further. A pale dust sticks to their skin, their sweat, their tears. And then, a sharp crack.
Her eyes cool and placid, even as she falls.
Rachel O'Cleary is an emerging writer of short fiction and has a degree in creative writing from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. She has recently worked as an English teacher in Poland and France, and currently lives in Ireland with her husband and three children.
Short Fiction ~ Bruce Meyer
Second Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 9
Did I remember the path beside the lake where the maples bent over the cinder path and reminded her of a cathedral she visited in France when she was ten?
There was no path beside the lake.
“Yes,” she insisted, “you were there. We walked slowly. You held my hand. Wind rustled through the leaves. You said it would rain by midafternoon and it did.”
We had never been to such a place. I reminded her of the beach, the hot July sun turning sand into a frying pan in the late afternoon, and how she was afraid her water-puckered feet would blister if she walked to the cottage without her sandals.
“Did we hear the ocean?”
“All day,” I said.
“Did I burn?”
“No. I put lotion on your legs. I rubbed your arms and back with it, and you went back to sleep.”
“Then? Then did we walk beside the lake?”
“There was never a lake.”
“But I remember the canoe, the paddle dipping in the water, the trail of silver droplets making haloes in the still surface, and how afterwards we stood on the verandah of the lodge and looked up at the stars. There were so many stars.”
I wanted to tell her that she could only live one life at a time in her mind.
“You are thinking of a time I was not there.”
“But you were there when you lit a taper and touched it to the wick of the candle. You passed your finger through the flame and I was amazed it did not burn you. You told me to try it, but I was afraid. And when a moth that had gotten caught between the screen and the inner window flew free when opened the sash to let in some night air, it headed straight for the flame. It frightened me, and to calm me down you told me to make a wish.”
“What did you wish for?”
“I wished that you would always be with me. We would walk along the cinder path beside the lake and listen as the wind moved through the trees.”
“I wish there had been a lake.”
“But there was, and I wished that if you could not be with me in that moment, that wonderful moment when I felt so alive with you holding my hand, that you would find me again, and you did.”
Bruce Meyer is author or editor of over sixty-three books of poetry, short fiction, flash fiction, non-fiction, and literary journalism. His next book of flash fiction, Down in the Ground, will be published by Guernica Editions in 2020. He lives in Barrie, Ontario.
Short Fiction ~ Bob Thurber
Third Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 8
Straight out of high school Mick’s uncle landed him and me second-shift jobs at a textile factory where everybody wore rubber headphones to muffle out the noise. Everybody except the old timers, who were already deaf. I can’t even tell you what the company manufactured, but they certainly made a lot of it. From three until midnight Mick’s uncle calibrated dozens of loom-like machines and repaired any that broke, while Mick and I hauled cartons of braid from the loading dock. When nothing needed doing it was fun to watch the machines suck up braid like giants slurping spaghetti, while high above dozens of spools and bobbins intertwined different colored fibers, crisscrossing with one another.
Most nights, after work, we walked straight to the east side and grabbed a booth at the International House of Pancakes. Neither of us owned a car but Mick told the waitresses he drove a Cadillac with AC and power seats. He flirted and teased, and because we were good tippers the girls flirted back.
After we’d downed enough coffee to fuel a tractor-trailer driver’s all-night run, we’d hike over to Riverside cemetery and linger by the cliffs, smoking Marlboros and talking nonsense until two or three AM. Sometimes we just gazed at the stars and moon reflecting off the black water.
Mick’s sister was buried somewhere in Riverside, but we never went near her grave. Years before I met Mick, his sister had been strangled in her bed, on Easter, while everybody was at church. My mother remembered the whole story from newspapers and TV. She told me the police questioned everybody and in the end arrested nobody.
Mick never talked to me about any of that, and I never mentioned I knew shit, though one night, while taking a shortcut, walking past old houses with dim porch lights and pitch-black windows, Mick picked up a stone big as a baseball. He wound up and pretended to throw the stone, faking me out. He did this house after house, telling me each time how nobody in this world should ever be considered safe and protected behind anything as frail as glass.
Bob Thurber is the author of 6 books, including “Paperboy: A Dysfunctional Novel". Over the years his work has received a long list of awards and honors, appeared in Esquire and other notable publications, and been included in over 60 anthologies. Selections have been utilized as teaching tools in schools and universities throughout the world. Bob resides in Massachusetts. He is legally blind. For more info, visit: BobThurber.net
Short Fiction ~ Sara Siddiqui Chansarkar
Third Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 8
“Bahu, did you buy mangoes?” Mummyji, my mother-in-law, asks from her room at the back of the house. She’s old and paraplegic now, but her senses are still strong. As is her voice. I pay the produce seller in the porch for the fruits and vegetables I’ve bought and lock the front door behind me.
“I smell them…mangoes,” she adds.
Of course, you do. I smelled them too, for 25 years, I want to reply but don’t.
After he’d married me off, every summer, my father plucked near-ripe fruits from the mango tree in his courtyard, washed them, packed them in a wooden box layered with straw, and parceled them to me at my marital address — this house, Mummyji’s domain. In the two days it took for the package to arrive by train, the mangoes turned soft and fragrant.
“Only mangoes for his daughter. No sari for me or a kurta for my son,” Mummyji sneered at the mango carton, ordered my husband, Nitin, to carry it to her room and stow it under her bed. Nitin obeyed her command while she berated my father.
“That miser of a man! He sent only pots and pans with his daughter. No cash, no gold coins. My Nitin is a junior engineer. Even boys with a B.A degree get a motorcycle in dowry these days,” she continued. “I thought he’ll compensate on festivals, but he proved me wrong. On Diwali, I have nothing to show when women from the neighborhood flaunt glinting necklaces or earrings from their daughter-in-law’s parents.”
While I kept chopping green beans and potatoes in preparation for dinner, my thoughts drifted to my wedding night, the night I knew my kismet was doomed. After the guests left, I waited for my new husband. Nitin arrived with Mummyji to the doorway and touched her feet before entering our bedroom. She sang blessings for his long life and left.
Nitin lifted my embroidered veil, raised my chin with his fingers and told me that his mother was the most important person in his life, that I was to respect and serve her at all times, without question or retort. He said nothing about how pretty I was or how excited he was about our life together.
Without a college degree or a marketable skill, I had no choice but to depend on my husband and my mother-in-law. Day after day, Mummyji ordered me around, showed me my lowly position in the family hierarchy. I yearned to confide in my mother but she was dead, taken by dengue. My father, a schoolteacher, struggled to raise my younger brother and sister. I couldn’t return, be a burden to him.
I smelled the mangoes my father sent in Mummyji’s room as I swept the floor under her watchful gaze and instruction, reaching the broom under the bed to gather dust and fallen hair.
In the evening, Mummyji and Nitin ate while I served fresh, hot rotis to them. After the meal, every day, until the box was empty, Mummyji pulled out mangoes—my mangoes—from the carton, asked me to wash them. It took every iota of willpower in me to not bring those juicy orbs to my mouth, to take them back to her.
As I scrubbed the dinner dishes after eating alone in the kitchen, my mouth watered at the sound of Nitin and Mummyji sucking in the juice and the pulp, at the thought of the golden sweetness gushing down their throats.
How sweet those mangoes were from my childhood tree. How my mother used to squeeze them out to make aamras, which she served with puffed pooris. How the three of us, my brother, sister, and I, raced to the courtyard at the sound of a ripe fruit dropping to the ground. How we sat in a circle in our underclothes every night, eating the yellow mangoes, the juice dribbling down our mouths to our elbows to our clothes. How my father made us sit, one by one, under the tube well’s outlet while he worked the handle up and down, drawing water to wash us clean.
At night, after Nitin was done with my body, I stayed awake, smelled the mango aroma wafting from the trash, and waited for his and Mummyji’s snores to fill the silence. Then, I sneaked into the kitchen, shooed away the rats, extracted the mango carcasses from the garbage, tore open the fruits’ skins, scraped the remnant flesh on them with my front teeth, licked the stones until they looked like oval faces framed with short, white hair.
I wrote thanks to my father, said the mangoes were getting sweeter and juicier with each season. When he died, last year, the fruit parcel stopped.
Today, I picked up a yellow mango from the produce seller’s cart at the doorstep. Now, after Mummyji took to bed, after 26 years of our being married, Nitin gives me money every month to purchase groceries.
“Are these mangoes sweet?” I asked the vendor.
“Sweeter than jaggery,” he replied.
I pressed the fruit between my palms, felt its texture, brought it to my nose, smelled its ripeness, then put it down, and bought only spinach and tomatoes. I still felt Mummyji’s eyes on me, all the time.
“Memsahib, buy these mangoes,” the vendor called out, as if sensing my desire and dilemma when I walked away. “They’re the last of the season. You’ll regret passing on them, I tell you.”
My feet turned around and I bought two kilograms of the fruit.
“Bahu, bring me a mango!” Mummyji screams. “Are you deaf?”
I tear the top off a fruit, suck, and suck, noisily.
She clinks a spoon to the bedrail to get my attention but she can’t have it or the mango.
Sara Siddiqui Chansarkar is an Indian American writer. She was born in a middle-class family in India and is indebted to her parents for educating her beyond their means. She is a Pushcart and Best of the Net nominee; her work has been published online in MoonPark Review, PidgeonHoles, Barren Magazine, and also in some print anthologies. She can be reached on twitter @PunyFingers.
Short Fiction ~ Oliver Barton
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 9
The train stops in a tunnel and the lights go out. I say to myself, I’m not going to panic, because you can feel the fear rising, you know, in spite of yourself. In detective stories and movies, things happen in the dark, in trains. Alive before the tunnel, emerge into the light; dead body. Remember Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes? I can do without this. I am tired of the boredom of it all. I just want to get home and have a drink and eat something in front of some stupid sitcom on the telly. Escapist unnatural jolliness. A ghastly hysterical studio audience.
It is dark, but your eyes adjust, of course. There is light here and there. Phones, tablets, laptops, all filling their humans with images and messages. Now the train’s generators stop. Those talking too loudly on their mobiles fall silent. Perhaps they can’t get a signal. It is uncanny, unnatural. Dark. Darkish. Silent. Fairly silent. I can still hear a tish-tish-de-tish-tish from someone’s MP3 player.
I wish someone would say something. ‘Perhaps…,’ I say. And stop because I can’t think of anything sensible. Then the computers and phones start winking out. In ones and twos. The tish-tish gets a bit louder. The last light vanishes, leaving a dwindling image on my retina. The tish-tish crescendos more and stops.
It is dark now, and it is silent. It is impossible. How can so many batteries run down at the same time? Why does nobody speak? There is a faint hissing. Is it someone whispering? I can’t make out words. My eyes are playing tricks. I keep thinking there’s a flickering glow outside on the tunnel walls. And the hissing. It is hissing. I’m sure of that. I don’t want to think what it might mean. What is leaking…
Take my word for it, in a situation like this, in darkness, when you don’t understand what is going on and something is hissing, your thoughts turn to mortality. The fragile span of life. Of what you were going to do, what you could do, today, tomorrow, next week, next year… I’m fifty-seven, I’m balding, I’m overweight, I admit it. I’m… I… Oh, be honest! I haven’t achieved most of things I thought I would. Just haven’t got around to them, put them off, couldn’t be bothered. Now, though, I terribly want to do them, to walk the Pennine way, to visit Malta, to write a book, to learn to swim, to get a more fulfilling job… Now there is an urgent need, now when perhaps it is too late.
It’s making me a bit light-headed. I feel I’m floating on my seat. And there seems to be a slight breeze. My hair is being ruffled. I think I can smell smoke. Total darkness is no good for the nerves.
Nor is the deafening whistle that drowns out the hissing, a whistle that echoes down the tunnel. Like a banshee. The train gives a violent lurch, and everyone is talking and we’re moving, picking up speed, and the smoky smell is getting stronger and I’m choking.
We burst into the light in a cloud of steam. Someone in a seat on the other side of the carriage comes over and tugs on the leather strap to close the window.
‘You should keep it closed when we go into a tunnel, sonny,’ he says. ‘Otherwise the smoke all comes in. Filthy stuff. Don’t know what they’re burning these days. Coal’s not what it used to be before the war.’
Tickety-tak, tickety-tak, goes the train. Tickety-tak, tickety-tak. I look down at the rather grubby and grazed knees sticking out from my shorts, I run my hand through my unruly hair and realise that possibly, just possibly, I have another chance.
Oliver Barton used to write Computer User Manuals, but having retired, now prefers to replace telling facts that nobody reads with writing whimsical fiction that lots of people enjoy. He is currently at work on his second novel. He lives in Abergavenny, Wales. Website: www.musicolib.net, though it’s more to do with his musical compositions.
Short Fiction ~ Palak Tewary
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 9
She finished work, grabbed her old threadbare yellow satchel which she hated and rushed home. She had to go to the next shift and there wasn’t much time.
Amy had been working three shifts for a while now – there never was enough money to scrap through and she really wanted to save enough to finish her A Levels and then go to college. She worked at the library, as a general factotum in a lawyer’s office and as a waitress. She studied late at night via a correspondence course, which her social worker had set up. She was to take her exams in six months and move on to the life that she dreamed about.
Orphaned, in the wrong company at her foster homes and a bad decision in high school had led her down a path from which she had had a tough time trying to come back. But come back – she had – finally. It was her friend’s death through an overdose which had woken her up from the slumber she had found herself living in. Just eighteen, she wanted to pursue her dream of studying fashion designing. She loved clothes but looking at her now, no one could tell.
She changed into her waitressing uniform of black trousers and a white shirt, covered herself with her dependable coat, pulled on her shabby black shoes with tattered heels, grabbed her abhorrent satchel and with a longing look at the kettle, rushed to the subway.
It was a busy night and as usual, she served promptly and efficiently but unsmilingly. Everyone who knew her had never seen her smile.
As the night deepened, she thought, at times, she would pass out from utter fatigue but respite came when she was able to take a break to grab some dinner. She fell on it ravenously thankful that the restaurant fed her. The rest of the time, she had to make do with cheap knock-offs from the supermarkets that were nearing the expiry date and had to be sold for less or had to do without food.
She got to the station, exhausted. Alone, she sat down to wait the two minutes for the last train to come.
Two men came down the stairs at the far end, one after the other. She watched them, having nothing better to do. One turned and she saw that he was short and bald, holding something that looked like a folder. He seemed to be gesturing something to the other taller man, walking backwards. She was surprised as they had come separately and she hadn’t realised they knew each other. The taller man with spiky short hair wore all black.
And then, it all happened in seconds. The silence of the night was broken by a shrill shout and then a scuffle between the two. She was too far to see what had caused it and was too petrified to move. The short man broke free suddenly and pushed the taller one back. Taking the opportunity while the tall man gained his balance, the shorter one ran towards her and she jumped up in fright.
But he didn’t reach her. A gun shot rang out and her breath caught – the man who was running towards her, stopped halfway and then fell to the floor, his dead open eyes eerily watching her.
She stood distraught as the other man approached her, his hand upright holding the gun, his lips turned in a vicious sneer, his face one that she would never forget. She looked around to find a way to escape. She had a few moments as he was too far for a clear shot. She inched towards the tracks. Miraculously, she heard the faint sound of the train approaching. The man heard it too and with a bellow, started to come faster towards her. She sprinted to the end of the platform as the train pulled in. The doors opened and a shot sounded behind her – with a yell and in agonising pain, she fell inside the train and the doors closed.
As she lay there in a growing pool of blood, her eyes started to shut. Her life’s journey flashed before her – she saw a vision of her future-self graduating from college. In those few moments, she felt a lifetime of regrets wash away and all her dreams turn to ashes.
Then there was light, and noise – there was the sound of an ambulance or perhaps it was a police siren and someone calling. Were they calling her? She couldn’t tell, sleep beckoned her.
She didn’t hear the shouting or the patter of the feet around her, she didn’t know the train was stopped and her assailant captured by the police, she hadn’t seen the stranger in her compartment call for help.
When she woke, she found herself looking at the white walls of a hospital room. She was alone with a familiar beeping sound and a strange bubbling noise. She looked around for water.
As she wondered what to do, a nurse came in, smilingly and exclaimed “You are awake” and then bustled about to get her the next dose of medicine. Amy weakly asked for water and as the nurse gave her some, she said “You are lucky. Had that last train not come or that satchel of yours not been there, you would have surely died.”
Amy’s eyes involuntarily went to her old satchel sitting on one side, sporting a large hole through which the bullet must have passed through – it was that, she now knew, that had saved her life. She had been given a new lease in life - a second chance – to be happier, to not only look at the burdens in life, to be grateful and to let go of regrets. And for the first time in many years, she smiled.
Palak Tewary, an Indian-born Londoner, is a management/finance professional, who along with being an ardent writer, is a travel buff & photography/videography enthusiast. She blogs at www.palaktewary.com and writes fiction, non-fiction and poetry – some of which has been published on various platforms. Connect with her on YouTube/ Twitter/ Instagram on @palaktewary.
Short Fiction ~ Stephen Smythe
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 9
Granny mimicked James Cagney, danced to Boy George, borrowed money from herself, slipped me ten bob on my birthday and drank eleven mugs of tea every day, never leaving one unfinished no matter how cold it got. When she’d smoked all her Park Drive, she used the empty packet for her weekly budget. Her columns of pounds, shillings and pence were barely visible to the naked eye, yet they were crystal clear to her. She didn’t need specs until she was way into her sixties, so didn’t have to remove any the time she punched a skinhead.
I was ten, which would have made Granny around fifty, and we were in a café at the city zoo. The skinhead, who was across the table from us, was scowling at a girl next to him. He called her “Slut” and gritted his teeth. The girl’s cheeks reddened and she lowered her eyes. Granny’s cheeks were also flushed but her eyes were blazing.
“What you lookin’ at!” the skinhead, sneering, said to Granny.
Granny stood up and walked around to where he was seated. “Pardon?” Granny said.
“You need a hearing aid, Grandma?” he said, leaning back in his chair.
Granny socked him flush on the jaw. Her knuckles swelled afterwards but she said she didn’t feel a thing at the time – except satisfaction.
He remained seated, open-mouthed. Granny stood over him, all five foot two of her, fist cocked ready to deliver another right cross. The girl smiled and the skinhead skedaddled.
Granny was always there for me. I wish she were here now, so I could pick her up like I did when I grew bigger and she got smaller. “Put me down!” she’d yell, laughing chestily.
She left school at fourteen, in 1926. Jobs may have been scarce nationwide but not for Granny who lived a few minutes’ walk away from the burgeoning Trafford Park Industrial Estate, built in the north of Victorian England on what was once deer land and meadows. She walked into the offices of Ford Motors and asked about vacancies. The supervisor liked Granny’s initiative and gave her a job right there.
It was after two years at Ford Motors that Granny met Harry Turner, a new accounts clerk. He was eighteen. It was a brief courtship and a hasty marriage: Granny was three months’ pregnant with Mum. I discovered this after Mum died and I was looking through papers stashed in a shoe box, found buried away at the bottom of Mum’s wardrobe.
I never knew Harry Turner, Grandad, nor what he looked like. There were no photographs. Granny didn’t talk about him. Whenever I said, “Tell me about Grandad,” she’d roll her eyes, or change the subject.
Like Granny, Mum didn’t mention Grandad. The stories I heard about him came from Dad: how Grandad met Granny, how he gambled his wages at White City Greyhound Stadium, always had a Woodbine dripping from his lip, and that he drank too much. At the age of 39, he was so drunk he slipped off his own balcony to his death.
Granny was a Catholic. She went to confession on Friday, mass every Sunday and always took Holy Communion, right up until having a stroke when she was 81. She was to live another six months.
The week before Granny died, we were in her flat on the top floor of the five-story block where she’d raised Mum. She refused to be rehoused even though the lift often broke down. “I’ll manage” she said, “I always have.”
It was hot but she was wearing a woollen shawl, seated in her armchair, tepid mug of tea in one hand, a lit Park Drive in the other. Her left cheek sagged slightly but her speech was clear enough. I asked her one last time to tell me about Grandad.
She rolled her eyes.
“What’s the big secret?” I asked. “It can’t be that bad.”
She smiled, lopsided, and spoke slowly.
“It was Sunday night. I’d been to mass with your Mum. We ate supper and she went to bed – she had school the following morning. I was reading, one eye on the clock, waiting for…” she hesitated “…waiting for him to come home. I used to dread eleven o’clock – chucking out time at the pub.
“I heard the key in the front door and I went stiff. He staggered in, stinking of booze. He went straight to the balcony door and let in the cold air. I can see him now, smirking in the doorway, slurring his words, “’Cheer up you miserable cow!’”
Granny stopped speaking and drained her mug. “He was shouting how he wished he’d never married me. That I’d trapped him by getting pregnant. He was always saying that.
“I thought he was going to wake your Mum. I stood and said, ‘If you don’t like it, pack your bags.’ He gritted his teeth. ‘Don’t answer back!’ he shouted. He punched me and my head banged against the wall. He’d cut my lip, again.”
Granny’s eyes blazed as she looked beyond me. “He pointed to the kitchen, told me make him a sandwich, and went outside. I looked in the mirror and saw the mark he’d made on my jaw. It’s a wonder the bruises ever disappeared.” Granny stroked her face, the side that sagged.
“I could see in the mirror that he’d climbed onto the balcony ledge. He was shouting and waving his arms, pretending to fly. A light from a flat across the road went on and off.
“I wiped the blood from my mouth and walked out onto the balcony. It was dark and nobody was around. He looked down at me, arms swaying, and sneered. ‘Where’s my sandwich?’
“I felt my swollen lip. His legs were within easy reach. I thought, ‘Who’d ever know?’”
Granny waved her cigarette smoke away from me. ”And nobody does know,” she said, her eyes softening, “except God, me – and you.”
Stephen Smythe lives in Manchester, England, and completed an MA in Creative Writing at Salford University in 2018. He was shortlisted for The Bridport Prize (Flash Fiction Category) in 2017 and shortlisted in the Bath Flash Fiction Award 2018. He was also placed second in Northern Ireland's Bangor Literary Journal FORTY WORDS Competition in 2019 and this year he was Highly Commended in the same competition for his micro-fiction.
Short Fiction ~ Shijo Varghese
The boy had a hunch that the moment would freeze in his memory and return later to haunt him when the vicar darted in to his house on his bicycle, his white cassock swelling in the air and its ends flailing against wind as he whizzed past and came to a sudden halt that would jerk him out of his seat and toss his greasy hair on to his forehead. He jumped out of his vehicle, propped it against the twig fence and as it started to flop down, pulled it off the ground and settled it on its stand. He wiped sweat with a neatly folded white kerchief that he drew out of the left sleeve of his cassock, grinned as he looked up and with a flick, he threw the twig gate half-open as he blundered through it.
‘You didn’t come in the morning!’ He leaned on to the cotton tree and struggled to catch his breath.
‘Push it under the shade of the tree,’ said the boy as he dropped his pencil to the picture he was drawing and screwed up his eyes against the evening rays of the sun, blazing behind the minatory frame of the vicar, who now was straining his neck to look through the wooden window frame of the room next to the veranda.
‘It’s alright. Where’s your dad?’
Lying idly in the room near the twig fence, dad had espied the vicar bolting past the twig gate just when he had been thinking of savouring his quotidian dose of alcohol that he used to relish after his daily siesta and had reached his hand under the cot to feel the chill of the bottle. Struggling to find the hem of his garment that had unfastened during his nap and trying to sit himself up, he managed to put the bottle he had laid his hand on back under his cot just in time.
‘Why didn’t you come in the morning?’
‘Praised be Jesus Christ’
‘Forever and ever. Why didn’t you come?’ He grimaced with anticipation as he caught sight of dad in the room through the window, and let out a violent volley of soggy sneezes. The boy ran to the kitchen to see if mother was home.
‘That rascal of the boy was late again to wake up in the morning. Settle somewhere down, vicar.’
The vicar pulled out his white handkerchief to wipe his nose. He looked for a respectable chair in the veranda and, failing to find one, perched on the tip of a bench whose other end lifted up and wobbled in the air precariously as he sat.
‘The rascal of the boy…?’
‘The rascal of the boy was late to wake up; I broke his back with a kick that he is sulky even now. Be careful not to sit on the bench like that. Sit in the middle, the leg is shaky.’
‘Did you think about what I said?’
He grabbed hold of the picture the boy was drawing, looked keenly at it, and throwing it back to the table, wondered if the image of the bearded man on the paper was really Christ’s.
‘Ask him, vicar, I don’t want to answer for him. Don’t sit at the end of the bench like that. You will break it.’
‘Stop telling me that, for God’s sake. I won’t break the damn’d leg. Don’t you have a respectable chair in the house? Where is the boy!’
The boy stood in the kitchen torpidly, holding a glass of water that he was planning to offer to the vicar and looked through the kitchen window at the mass of dappled, misshapen, verdant leaves of a stooped down tree in the backyard with an instinctive awareness of his mother’s imminent apparition.
‘Sit here, boy. How did you chance upon that book?’
The boy climbed up the hill, on the top of which lived an old woman, a distant relative, in her ancient decrepit house that wearily gazed in perilous tranquillity at the brooding mercurial river down the hill. The old woman, before finally confining herself to the attic, used to wander through the dingy cells of her house with a paraffin lamp, which was of no help because she had misty scales in her eyes, night or day, it was always dark inside, searching for a button or a rosary or her teeth set. One day, with the paraffin lamp in her hand, she clambered up the attic, from where she refused to descend, and stayed there curled up—a preposterous cryptogram of tenacious human will—half-sitting in her bed and half-reclining on the gnarled pillows that were too grimy to tell from the weather-beaten clay-plastered wall, where they were stuck forever. The attic was full of things—old cloths, wooden toys, books and writing materials—of her son who, according to her last memory of him, had been shoved down from the attic and driven away in a police jeep, never to be seen or heard again. Her other sons forgot her—she gave birth to five sons—not because they did not love her, but because she refused to see them or eat their food, which they used to bring up to the foot of the ladder and keep there, only to be removed later because of the flies, ants, birds, and stench, and eventually they stopped visiting her altogether, partly because the boy, who, in the course of his meanderings, would make deliberate digressions to reach the old woman’s attic, sometimes with some wild berries, sometimes with breadcrumbs, tap at the wooden rail or shout, and when she responded with a grunt or a cough, ask her if she agreed to exchanging a pen, or a toy, or a book for a fruit or two crumbs of biscuits; and if she agreed to it, again with a grunt or a cough, he would throw the fruit or the crumbs to her through the grills of the handrail and the old woman, with great effort, would manage to push down with her leg or hand a pen, or a book, or a wooden toy in return. Once, the old woman dropped a paper parcel. Time and damp had blanched its brown colour and partially erased the name of the receiver but the book inside had not lost its freshness. As usual, the boy went to the backyard, climbed the large breadfruit tree and hid himself among its broad dark leaves.
The vicar gawked at the boy for a minute or so and sank back to the solitude of his swivel chair staring for another minute or so at the ceiling as the boy stood against him at his table, his head hung in guilt and fear, the fury of which had abated after the tumultuous moment that his instructor had caught him, red-handed, reading something no pious, God-fearing child would attempt to read ever, let alone inside the holy sanctuary of a catechism class. The instructor, an upright and estimable Christian, with a vain smirk on his lips, spoke at length about how his impassioned appeals to the young boys and girls to abide by the words of Jesus or to be wary of the devious devices of the devil, who, from the very beginning, was a murderer, a liar and the father of lies, were falling on deaf ears. Neither the boy nor the vicar listened to what he was saying as the boy was anxiously anticipating the hiding he would get from his dad that evening—which incidentally he would, but for another reason—and the vicar was trying hard to recollect a Bible verse proper to the occasion.
‘Do you know what you were reading?’
‘A book? Just any book? Do you know you were reading an accursed book, a book of the devil, the most malicious, pernicious and calamitous Satan?’ The instructor was seething with the zeal for the Lord God of hosts as his face contorted with fanatic intensity and his eyes popped out of their pits that he personified the most malicious, pernicious and calamitous Satan himself. The vicar’s thoughts were tangling into a disconcerting mass of Bible verses that he could not snap out of their labyrinthine maze to pick a singular verse proper to the occasion and therefore he decided against declaiming any.
‘Calm down, instructor. Will you go and take care of the children in your class? They must be very distracted now. Let me handle this.’
The vicar was a jovial man with a long scrawny face, which was darker than the rest of his body, and a long scraggy neck, around which his white cassock clung snugly to the protrusive clavicles and deep jugular notch, and raced down to his feet like a frothy cascade from under a rocky ledge. A long fat droopy nose sat between his sunken cheeks like an inflated toad. When he smiled—as he just did perfunctorily at the boy—his eyeballs slid into the caves in the skull and eyelids squeezed into narrow slits.
‘Why do you keep coming back to me, boy?’
The boy inclined his head, not so much out of guilt now, but out of fear, because men of consequence gave him the jitters when they smiled that way, especially when he was at the wrong side of the table, at the receiving end of justice, or at the mercy of luck or chance, such as when he was caught drawing a caricature of the chief instructor, or found loitering about at the girls’ changing room, or woken up from a sound nap during the Holy Mass by the sacristan. He had been at the vicar’s table many times in similar circumstances.
‘What is it this time?’
He stretched his hand, poked the red book on his table with the tip of his left index finger with the dispassion of a physician examining a putrefying sore and turned it around so that he could have a good look at its title. He asked in a sombre whisper, from where the boy had got the book, partly to himself and barely audible to anyone that could have been there, and the boy, his heart trembling and palms sweating, like Ananias, who refused to barter his truth for a story, kept staring at the book and said that it was dropped down by an old mad woman living in a dilapidated house’s attic, from which she never left even for food, or for water, or for defecation, but where she lay in her bed, living on the occasional fruits or breadcrumbs from the boy. The vicar neither trusted the boy nor believed his story; and therefore, he made no further enquiry about the mad woman or her attic but kept asking him about the contents of the book and discussed matters concerning salvation of the soul; while, the boy, growing in confidence and encouraged by the trust the vicar displayed, asked him questions concerning sin and suffering, snakes and devils, wings of angels, Adam’s bellybutton, and Noah’s ark, to most of which the vicar answered dismissively but rather convincingly except for Adam’s bellybutton, which he thought was very clever of the boy to ask because he had never thought of it himself and replied that God in his omniscience and omnipotence could have done anything and man would never understand. The vicar, nevertheless, took great care to keep to a dry and severe monotone as he spoke, in order to keep the boy grounded and insecure, except at the end of the conversation when he smiled warmly at the boy, read from the Gospel of Mark, chapter three, ‘Verily I say unto you, all sins and every slander shall be forgiven unto the sons of men; /But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Spirit hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation’, and, smiling again, directed him to meet the Mother Superior as soon as he finished the Confiteor five times in front of the main altar.
The boy was hungry—it was noon already—and he greedily looked at the fruit-laden Lubica tree at the patio of the convent. A very young dainty nun in grey veil, grey guimpe, grey scapular, and grey gown with sensuous lips and delicate limps was standing under the tree and, beaming at the boy, said ‘temperance’; and the boy felt ashamed that he had looked at the luscious fruits with desire and that the nun had seen him looking at the fruits with desire and proceeded to the parlour to wait for the Mother Superior, who, the nun in charge of the parlour said, had just started to have her lunch, and therefore, the boy could sit there in the meanwhile until she finished, or leave for his lunch and come back in half an hour, which, the boy said, was impossible because he would have to walk four kilometres up and down and therefore he would wait in the parlour. As their conversation was progressing, the dainty nun in grey habit passed through the parlour and stopping by him said that she was just joking and he could have some fruits if he wanted, but that he should not forget that it was the Great Lent. The boy remembered that the nun, who in fact was only a novice—as was evident from the colour of her habit—was his sister’s classmate and had visited his home some years back, before her entering the convent. As the novice continued speaking to the boy, the nun in charge of the parlour—she must be her spiritual mother—grew impatient with her indiscipline and chastised her for her heedless behaviour. When she left, the boy looked out of the window at the Lubica tree and realized that he missed her already.
The Mother Superior was a fair, soft and plumb woman with kind eyes and matriarchal breasts and had an archetypal maternal air of cherishing and nourishing goodness about her. She pressed children to her breasts in a vice-like stifling hug, motherly hug, and kissed them on their foreheads; but she pushed the boy away when he lingered on for an extra moment.
‘The vicar sent me a note that you were caught reading a terrible book.’
‘I didn’t know it was a terrible book.’
‘What sort of terrible book? With the pictures of women without clothes?’
Arching her lips in scornful indignation, she looked at the book the boy was lifting up in his right hand and felt much relieved when she found on the cover of it the caricature of a battered bearded man with bulging eyes laboriously carrying a cross, black lines against red background, only to arch her lips again at the title above the illustration in bold black letters, Christ and Krishna Never Lived, this time in muted abomination, which was slowly turning to bemused curiosity in a soon-to-be-debunked optimism that, judging by the looks, it would be only a story book.
‘No, it is not. It says that there never lived a person called Jesus; and there lived no Krishna either.’
‘Forget Krishna, you know that Jesus did live.’
‘To say that Jesus did not live.’
‘I said he did.’
‘But you read it and you continued reading even when you knew it was sinful.’
That was right, the boy rued; he knew from the very first page what the book was all about, but he had this nefarious desire for the forbidden; he had a visceral rush to explore every ungodly word and every sacrilegious notion, and it seemed as spontaneous as a worm holing through wood or as natural as a flame gnawing at paper, or as enervating as a treetop orgasm.
He was an awkward boy, very unremarkable in appearance and not particularly smart as was often remarked by his parents, and preferred to spend considerable time away from his peers because they thought he was awkward too. He wandered and sometimes was lost into green thickets near the river, from where he leisurely watched women, girls, children, men and animals, glistening bodies, hairy, speckled, warty and smooth, romping and rolling in water, fusing into sinewy corpulent mass and dividing, surging ripples coiling around wet flesh unceasingly. Sometimes he drew the swaying bodies on a piece of cheap paper or sometimes in his mind; either way, horripilated with excitement, he crawled up the steep winding incline that connected the thickets to the old woman’s residence on top of the hill, sneaked across the courtyard, scampered up the breadfruit tree and, perching perilously on the top branch, masturbated; and as the frenzy died down, he watched the sun setting, darkness rising, and pristine gossamer clouds of the evening turning blood red and black and realized that he had fallen again. In such a haze of vacuous gloom, he saw the old woman’s attic lit up in the glow of her paraffin lamp and longed to see his mother. When he did not go to the river, he read. Sometimes, scraps of newspapers, in which groceries had been wrapped; sometimes, old weeklies that his sister brought from her friends’ homes; and sometimes, books dropped from the attic.
The boy had not finished the first commandment when the vicar rustled past them in the parlour—Sundays he had his lunch from the convent—and the Mother Superior, noticing that the vicar had not noticed her sitting in the parlour, greeted him, ‘Praised be Jesus Christ,’ to which he turned his head, came over and greeted her back, ‘Forever and ever;’ and the boy fumbled with the rest of the commandments, however he tried, he could not go beyond two or three, and the vicar and the Mother Superior smiled through his struggle, finally concluding that the boy did not know his prayers.
‘Do you know how the devil works?’ the vicar leaned forward and smiled at the boy as he asked the question and slowly turned to the nun towards the end of it. Neither bothered to answer because any answer would be nullified by the erudition of the vicar, they presumed.
‘By deception,’ he said finally, and added that the devil tricked people, communities, and sometimes entire nations, like Russia, for instance, which was once a true Christian country, by selling them his ideas, planting in their minds little seeds of utopian notions—remember how Lucifer cajoled his fellow angels—such as liberty, equality and communism by means of bloodshed and revolution that would kill thousands of people and slay hundreds of leaders including kings who were anointed by God Himself, converting masses to irreligion and godlessness, plunging entire nations into anarchy and chaos, antitheism, atheism, and rationalism, all on the behest of that damned whiskered French rioter Marx, the antichrist—may he be granted mercy despite his unforgivable sins—whose followers, you could find them everywhere, even in this godforsaken village, mind you, were writing pamphlets, magazines and books, such as the one in the boy’s hand, in the hopes of shaking the foundation—built by, mind you, the Galilean on the solid rock of Cephas—of the Church, which even the treacherous Arabian Saracens of the Middle Ages could not shake, which was two millennia old, and which would last until the Kingdom came, forever and ever, Amen.
‘Amen,’ said the Mother Superior in dread of the bottomless pit of perdition to which the book opened its pages.
But the immense wisdom of the Holy Spirit, continued the vicar, guided the faithful in times of crises, by sending angels and the Holy Virgin Mary to warn three obscure children of Fatima, Lucia, Francisco and Jacinta, of the horrors that Russia should undergo, in the same year the Red Army had rampaged through the streets of the country; and the Holy Church, the indefectible church of Christ, which condemned communists as apostates in the Holy Decree of 1949, consecrated Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and, wonder of wonders, the USSR was brought to its knees, and the Holy Spirit showered Russia with his seven gifts—wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of God, ah, yes, fear of God that scattered the devils to the ends of the world—and the boy was reading what one of those apostates had written, that accursed man, who was excommunicated for writing abominable books that no good Christian should read.
The Mother Superior was staring at the boy, who, it was not difficult to deduce from his face and body language, was fatigued, though not hungry anymore—he had lost his appetite and refused to eat from the fruits the dainty novice brought; the nun did not encourage him either since she thought that a little abstinence would only nourish his heavenly prospects. When the boy finally left, the vicar walked to the refectory with a heavy heart to have his cold lunch, which made his heart heavier, and the Mother Superior waited at the table. He finished his lunch in silence, raised his head and, looking at the picture of Salvator Mundi on the wall, said, ‘It is an alarming trend;’ and he explained that the boy was the third he had caught reading books in a matter of two to three months. A good shepherd should leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one, which is lost, said the vicar. The boy, however, had vowed never to read such books, said the Mother Superior.
‘The sin of defiance will grow on man and devour him,’ the vicar said.
‘I’ll talk to his father this evening when he comes for the Via Crucis. A sound beating will do it for the boy,’ the Mother superior said as she sat at the table.
It had crossed the vicar’s mind too; however, he decided against punishing the boy, primarily because the boy was a regular in daily Mass and actively participated in pious associations; secondly, he had decided to talk to the boy’s father the next day when he would come for the morning Mass; and thirdly, he feared the beating may turn him into a rebel.
He thereupon knelt down, recited the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary and the Glory be, all three times each, and read from the Scripture:
‘Therefore said he unto them, the harvest truly is great, but the labourers are few: pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he would send forth labourers into his harvest.’
He lifted his hands to heaven—so did the Mother Superior after him—and prayed thus:
‘Eternal Father, I offer you the body and blood, soul and divinity of your dearly beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, in atonement for our sins, those of the whole world, and of the boy who blasphemed. For the sake of His sorrowful passion, have mercy on us, on the whole world, and especially the boy. We who are sinners intercede through our baptismal priesthood, given by the power of the Holy Spirit and the Incarnation of Jesus, and through the sacerdotal powers, conferred to me by my ministerial priesthood, for ourselves and the rest of the sinners on the face of the earth. Not ‘we the perfect,’ not ‘we the holy,’ not ‘we the better than all of those people,’ but ‘we the sinners in the Church’ pray for mercy for ourselves, the whole world, and the boy who blasphemed, in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.’
‘Amen,’ said the Mother Superior.
The dainty novice had sneaked out of the building while the vicar and the Mother Superior were speaking at the refectory. She caught up with the boy in the narrow mud path leading to the road and stuck into his short trousers’ pocket something, which, he later discovered, was some Lubica fruits wrapped in an old newspaper scrap. She was in a hurry to get back to the convent and, before the boy could say anything, vanished into a copse of mango trees, leaving the boy to himself and to the Lubica fruits, which, now that she had aroused his hunger again, he ate one after another, savouring their nectarous tartness, leaving only four or five fruits, which, by the time he reached the old woman’s house, had become bruised and soft. When he arrived at the top, evening had stretched the daylight and shadows long into the porch of the house. The sky in the west had turned golden, with a few petty scarlet clouds like squished Lubica fruits skidding along, and in the east it had darkened, a thunderstorm looming in the distance.
The boy sat down on the threshold to catch his breath. He heard distant noises of men, women and cattle rollicking in the river. Dampness of the Lubica fruits sifted through the lining of his pocket and wetted his groin. When a big drop of rain fell on his foot, he stood up and entered the gloom of the old woman’s house, whose dark chambers were spectrally lit by the evening glow that had wriggled in through dislodged roof tiles. Crinkled streaks of the sullen sky were cast upon the puddles that previous night’s rain had left on the floor. The paraffin lamp was unlit; in the vaporous twilight of the leaden sky seeping in through the top window, the attic hovered in dark void, and the glistening rails of its ladder descended to the ground. The old woman must be asleep, the boy presumed, because there was neither a grunt nor a cough when he tapped on the rails, so he decided to climb up.
Rain scurried across the roof. The attic was too dark to make out the old cloths, wooden toys, books, writing materials of the old woman’s son, and the old woman herself; the gnarled pillows and the bed were too grimy to tell from the old woman who must have remained curled up, half-sitting and half reclining there; and were it not for all her grunts, coughs, pens, toys, and books, the boy sighed, he himself would not have believed that the old woman had lived in the attic. The boy said he had come to trade some food.
He was coming from the convent, he said, where the Mother Superior and the vicar censured him for reading the book he got from the attic, her son’s book, they called it a terrible book, and said they would report the matter to his father, who would surely cane him—a bout of self-pity suddenly rushed in and his lips twitched—and a novice gave him some fruits, which he should have refrained from eating because it was the Great Lent, but the devil got the better of him and he ate all except a few, the remainder he brought to her.
‘Bring them,’ said the old woman in a funereal rasp, which, the boy thought, sounded like a bird’s preening its wings.
‘Shall I light the lamp?’ The boy’s eyes had grown accustomed to the dark and spotted the paraffin lamp.
‘Hush,’ she said and asked the boy to bring her the fruits. The boy brought them close to her bed and placed them on the floor within her hand’s reach; a lithe hand snaked out and, clutching one of the fruits, mashed it between fingers.
‘Light now,’ she said. And the boy lighted the lamp and saw that the old woman had grown younger, a lot younger than when he saw her last, the day she had clambered up the attic; her wrinkles were smoothed, she had more black hairs in her head, and her rheumy eyes no longer had misty scales on pupils. She had grabbed something in her fist and when she opened them, there were three cockroaches, all dead. She pressed each one between her fingers, squeezed the guts out of them and ate one after another.
‘You don’t eat the fruits?’ asked the boy.
‘I bait them with fruits. Breadcrumbs are better. They last longer. Yield more,’ she said in a coarse hush entangled in phlegm. ‘Light out. Eyes hurt.’
The inky black rain outside was spitting twisted silver strands of light through the top window and the boy grew nervous as the pitch dark conjured up the long prehensile hand of the old woman ensnaring more cockroaches.
The book, she said, the boy could keep; he reminded her of her youngest son, who was shoved down from the attic and driven away in a jeep by two white-clad men.
‘They took him to the police station?’ the boy asked.
‘A seminary,’ the mad woman rasped again, ‘Stay. I’ll teach you to catch cockroaches.’
He ran home, drenched in water and fright, as wind flung down clobbering globules of rain blinding him and anyone who was stranded outside that night. A stream of torrential abuses greeted him at the door—the downpour screened most of it from reaching the neighbourhood—and a whooshing cane violently met his flesh—long, crimson welts crisscrossed his calves as he lay on his stomach staring into darkness—for coming home late and for forgetting his catechism books in the class, which were sent through a neighbourhood girl. The rain did not let up until the morning; the boy, however, on an empty stomach did not last that long. Dad did not wake him up for the morning Mass.
‘A priest is a blessing to his family,’ said the vicar, sipping from the glass of water.
Certainly, thought dad, the old father and mother of a priest were mentioned in Solemn Masses, invited to parish meetings as guests, given seats in the front row during prayers, his brothers were respected among their friends and acquaintances, his sisters were married off to respectable families, even to relatives of bishops—a priest of a nameless family made his people respectable in society, a decent reward for a convenient sacrifice. The boy heard leaves rustling, cows mooing and a sickle clanging to the ground and sensed his mother was back.
The vicar shook hands with dad after dad replied, throwing a glance at mother, that if God willed so, who could stand against it, to the vicar’s discreetly contrived words that they should not grumble about returning one to the Lord who blessed them with six—five boys and a girl, all hale and hearty by God’s grace—and that the one who relinquished his son or daughter to God’s service should receive a hundredfold here and should inherit eternal life. Mother said nothing. She stroked the boy’s hair and he turned his head and looked into her ground down eyes.
‘Whose picture were you drawing?’
The boy did not answer. The vicar grabbed the picture on the table, walked into the kitchen, threw it into the fire—he had taken some time to see the boy was drawing the portrait of the writer—and watched with an uncanny sense of victory the fire licking the long bearded face that so deceptively looked like Christ’s countenance. He threw the book too, but its wet pages sputtered, smoked and suffocated everyone in the kitchen.
‘It’s a new beginning,’ the vicar said with a smile. The boy nodded his head in relief. The sun was setting and it was time for the Via Crucis; and therefore, the vicar heaved himself up onto the bicycle and darted back to the church, his white cassock swelling in the air and its ends flailing against the wind. The boy looked long into the road and resolved not to go to the river.
Shijo Varghese lives in Kochi, India. He is an artist and writer and his stories and poems have been published in various online journals. He is teaching literature at Sacred Heart College, Kochi.
Short Fiction ~ Ann Stoney
Only the woods feel safe. Mikki and I amble through trees and dirt covered with soft pine. We’re on someone else’s property but it no longer matters. We are all in this together. A few yards ahead Mikki wants to pee, I’m sure of it. I take her to a slew across the road down a sort of path. Everything is sort of. Does it live on objects and for how long? That pick-up truck a hundred yards away, is it far enough? If someone got out and yelled Hi, would it carry itself across clouds of dust and for how long? Maybe…sort of.
The other day I pick up food from Micah and Rochelle, a lovely young couple whose business may now tank. From farm to table and very good at that. I buy beef stew and chicken enchiladas and reach across the table to hand Rochelle the cash, wondering if it wouldn’t have been wiser to give her a check—they don’t accept credit cards—less dirty, less paper for it to cling to—she was seated at the table not three feet away. That kind of worried me.
The Indian guy at the gas station in the middle of nowhere had assured me there would be toilet paper at 5:00 p.m., and after leaving with a full tank and no toilet paper, I think, why not see if Micah and Rochelle are open, it being a Wednesday during their normal hours, not that anything is normal now. Take-out only, of course. Customers can call in for orders. I didn’t call in, I explain, I’m sorry, I wasn’t aware of the new procedures. So that’s what they had in the freezer. Beef stew and chicken enchiladas. My husband and I ate the beef stew, we’re saving the chicken enchiladas for another meal.
Speaking of my husband, he thinks I’ve gone crazy. He doesn’t think it’s necessary to take off all his clothes and throw them in the laundry after buying wood pellets from the tall Norwegian in town. To spray the bags with three teaspoons of bleach mixed with a quart of water. We only have one can of Lysol Disinfectant Spray—approved by the EPA—and why I didn’t buy six is beyond me. To spray all commonly touched objects—doorknobs, handles, light switches, phones. But my husband doesn’t think any of this is necessary.
It would be great to set up a tent out here but it’s too damn cold. I follow Mikki to a tree that’s fallen from a recent storm. There’s not enough space for me to crawl under. Mikki meows from the other side. She has extremely fussy bathroom habits. There must be no sounds of cars or critters. I must stand guard. She takes her time finding a spot and begins digging. She goes and I wonder. Could it be hiding in her fur? Could she be, when she swishes her tail across my arm, providing a path from tail to human skin? I’m rubbing my eyes without thinking, I suddenly realize—a nervous gesture perhaps as they don’t itch really—and I wonder, am I putting myself in danger? But I keep rubbing, as though in defiance of this thing that’s taken over our lives and besides, I washed my hands not fifteen minutes ago and we’re in the woods. But still.
The reason I’m in the woods now is because of our fight, which began this morning. This morning I greet him at the door, Lysol in rubber-gloved hand, a slew of instructions on my lips. Leave the bags of pellets in the car for three days, except what we need, which has to be sprayed before you bring it inside. Leave the spray on for ten minutes. And empty your pockets please. He sighs, handing over cell phone and keys. This is ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous. I whip out a zip-lock for his cash and spray the inside. This is the EPA talking. The CDC. I read an article in Wired. He takes off shoes and socks. I don’t have to give you my shirt because it was under my jacket, it didn’t touch anything. I wipe down cell phone and keys, put them on his desk. Your jacket then. And your jeans. He gives them up with another sigh, and I run them upstairs to the laundry room. I’ll tell you one thing! he bellows. I’m not doing this every time I have to run an errand!
During lunch I feel it necessary to tell him how we have to start being more efficient with our errands. Lunch is Italian sausage I can’t eat because my Irritable Bowel is acting up so I make one with melted cheese for him only and open canned tuna and a box of mixed greens for myself, adding a couple of olives and a spoonful of vegan mayo which might give me an episode later but what the hell. He’s preoccupied with the mustard and probably isn’t listening. I wash my hands vigorously, raw chapped hands no amount of salve can heal. Just because we have an account with the Norwegian guy, doesn’t mean we couldn’t have bought them at the garden center the other day, we were already out but you insisted on not stopping. I grab a chair, struggling to remember if I sprayed the back of it. I don’t think you realize how important it is to minimize our trips. To anywhere. To a lone Norwegian guy for wood pellets or a store with customers in a shopping aisle. I pour myself some cranberry juice. My husband slugs a beer. Mustard running down his chin. I’ll tell you what I realize, he says, grabbing a napkin. How fucking crazy you are.
After lunch we make banana bread and get into it about our apartment in the city. We left in a rush a week ago, and there were certain things we forgot, essential things, at least to him. His rain jacket. Mikki’s water fountain. The mini vacuum. We can order anything on-line, I assure him, not telling him the mini vacuum can’t be delivered for two months; next day delivery is, apparently, no longer an option. We can’t afford to buy two of everything, he says, and I need to do some business. I have to get more supplies. I remind him that his small-time marijuana business is non-existent now. All the more reason not to buy two of everything, he says, voice rising with each uttered word. And the stock market crash, I’ve lost money. I need to do something! Do what? I ask, what could you do? What could we possibly need from the city, the epicenter of IT, of more deaths than anywhere else?
Mikki loves to roll around on gravel, in leaves. The sun must be shining. It’s shining today, a sparkling invitation to walk further. She rolls around in a sunny spot, batting at the air, poking at the stick I’ve turned into a toy, moving it back and forth. Play-fighting. I could be in this moment trapped forever and it would be better than what lies in our house. On surfaces. In the refusal of my husband to listen.
Often it’s two against one. The two girls against the male. She prefers my lap to his. Last summer, in the midst of barbeques, cocktail parties and fundraisers for the local library —unthinkable things now—she wandered through the woods in front of our house. I placed food closer and closer until one day she jumped into my arms and that was it. I’m the one who feeds her, cleans her water fountain and rubs her ear with medicine day and night. She turned out to be special needs like her new mama, full of angst and energy and worry but there are those times when she lies on my belly and her purr melts it all away, or times when we walk in the woods on a sunny day and my mind clears away everything but the path in front of me. The days are empty now, punctuated only by meals and the occasional errand. I could fill them with the useless things we call life but I’m too busy sanitizing doorknobs and washing my hands and listening to the news. All day we listen, anything else seems pointless. Our ongoing fight seems pointless. How far we should go to protect ourselves. To survive.
When the banana bread is done, he takes it from the oven, dumps it into his potholder hand and I erupt. What the fuck is wrong with you! You can’t even wait for me to get you a goddamn plate? You don’t know what’s on that potholder! You washed it the other day, he yells, grabbing a knife and cutting board. I throw the potholder in the laundry and return to the kitchen fuming. You’ve been out since I washed it! God knows what’s living on it now! He plants himself on a most likely un-sanitized stool, enjoying the banana bread, which infuriates me even more, muttering something like, I can’t do this, I can’t go on like this, and I grab my cellphone and water bottle and head for the living room. Where are you going? he calls out. For a walk! I yell, since I can’t eat the banana bread! All that work and I can’t even fucking eat it! I thrash around, looking for gloves and a jacket. And I’ll tell you another thing! You go back to the city, I won’t be here when you return!
That gets his attention. He follows me through the living room and out the door. Where are you gonna’ go? You have nowhere to go! His yelling more and more distant as I head for the woods. You can drive to Middleburgh! You can drive to Albany! You can drive to Timbuctoo to the fanciest hotel and you won’t find a damn thing open!
He’s right. I have nowhere else to go. But I head for the woods anyway and as always, Mikki follows.
The sun is beginning to set and Mikki is meowing her tired meow. I scoop her up and she burrows into the down of my jacket, fragile heart beating against mine, as we make our way through trees and dirt and pine along the sort of path, the kind that disappears and appears over and over like a puzzle waiting to be solved. Back to the house. Our house. The house we bought in a rush before our wedding so we could save money hosting the guests. The hamlet nearby where we had our ceremony—church, library, art galleries, café—shut down for we don’t know how long.
He greets me at the door with my favorite cocktail—cucumber vodka with fresh squeezed lime. We’re foodies and drinkies and sometimes this gets us through. Four weeks of this, he says, more like a question. Two months? Three months? For how long? I shake my head. No one knows. He leads me to the fire he built from the wood he chopped. Yesterday he raked leaves into piles, but then the wind blew them all away. We came up earlier than usual. It is not yet summer. He leads me to our one big chair by the fire, and seats himself on the couch. We’re lucky to have this, he says, this house. To have a place to go. I rest my feet on the hassock we bought at a flea market long ago—when it was possible to enjoy such a thing—settle my eyes on the candle he lit, the paintings scattered about. His father’s antique rifle and sculpture of ducks in flight, mounted above the mantlepiece. The fruits of his labor. He is the decorator, the one with the visual eye. Whoever enters is entranced. Their eyes glaze over the odd assortment of thrift store knick-knacks, furniture and things inherited. Yes, I say, we’re lucky. We have a house. We’re retired and don’t have to work. But if we get it, it could be deadly. And you need to listen for once in your life.
He takes my hand, the only human touch available to either of us. I heard you coughing earlier, I say. He smiles. Does that mean I can’t kiss you? The brush of his lips against my cheek. I’m sorry I’ve failed in so many ways as a human. I’m sorry I couldn’t get someone to take the leaves before they blew way. I’m sorry I don’t believe spraying Lysol does much good. What else?
Mikki leaps onto my lap, purrs and like always, lifts her hind leg demanding a tummy rub. The very routine of her says, this is all there is. Us three. And the possibility of IT, always lurking. I squeeze his hand. I’m sorry I was so snippy. He strokes Mikki and smiles. That’s not being snippy; that’s just you, being normal. I smile. That’s just you trying to be funny.
We stare quietly at the fire. For every flame it makes I want to see through it to the other side, up the chimney and beyond, but you can’t see clearly through fire and smoke, the misinformation, the idiot president, the survivalists’ gleeful claims that they were prepared all along, though the stories they tell only match the resources they have and those stories no longer work.
But we stare at it anyway because that’s what you do with fires. We stare quietly seeking answers, simple things —raking leaves, chopping wood, filling the bird feeder, getting food. We talk of tomorrow and how if it’s sunny, we might go for a long solitary walk. A walk in the woods where it’s safe.
Ann Stoney worked in NYC and regionally, as an actress, songwriter and playwright, before embarking upon a career as a literacy teacher in the NYC public schools. Her work has appeared in Ladies Home Journal, Duende and In Good Company. 2020 writing honors include outstanding finalist (Tampa Review) and finalist (Cutthroat Journal). Others include semi-finalist (American Literary Review) and quarterfinalist (Nimrod). She was honorably mentioned in Glimmer Train and long-listed for the 2019 Sean O’Faolain Competition (Munster Literature Center, Cork, Ireland). Ann is proud to serve as a reader for the Bellevue Literary Review.
Short Fiction ~ Dragan Todorovic
—For Raymond Queneau
The morning flight to Paris is always full. It carries us—the working class of the new world, people like me, who fly in, do the job, get lost. I recognised about half of the passengers. With few I exchanged hellos.
When we landed at CDG it was as if the plane had been cut in two. Business people: purposefulness in their stride. Those arriving for pleasure: slow in everything, slow to get up, slow to take their bags from the overhead. They dragged their feet through the exit tunnel, into the building, then they started reading signs… I understand that: unsure what would be important in the end, tourists cram memories into their every move. But I had things to do and knew the airport. Straight on the series of travelators, turn right at the end, the middle door opens fastest, left by the giant flight table—careful there through the flocks of confused travellers—right into the leather recliner area, down the escalator, left through the revolving doors—no need to make the arch inside them, just go straight!—get into the corralled zone leading to the border checks.
Everyone slows in this, last stage. For security reasons, these areas are under stronger lights, and passengers start to wipe their eyes as if waking up, as if their whole flight has been just a dream, and their reality is this huge, depressing space sliced into thin passages by the blue crowd-control tapes. Then they hesitate, as people do with uniforms around them. Have you noticed that? I bet the uniforms don’t have to be filled with people. Just hang the uniforms around and they slow down, they want to enter the right lane, they don’t want to anger the Gatekeepers. I guess this part is somehow too close to the final border checks, the ones where you hold your soul in your teeth before Saint Peter. And it’s here that we who know always overtake everyone else, without pushing, without elbowing anyone. We’ve been checked and rechecked before. We’ll pass.
The area leading to the glass booths was unusually empty, so I hurried through the labyrinth. The couple ahead—until then holding well—stopped suddenly halfway down and I passed by.
In the left lane, reserved for crews and VIPs, three men and a woman were dealing with someone in a wheelchair. They stood in front of a side door. One of the men was a civilian, and he bent over the wheelchair to help with something. The woman was smiling at something he had said. Black uniforms. They looked like they knew each other. Banter.
Ahead, pretty black hostesses dressed in peach jackets and tight black trousers were waiting for the flood of arrivals that would start later. Whoever had chosen them will be in trouble soon. They are too beautiful and a feminist will catch that. Mark my words. Someone will be cancelled here.
As I approached, I saw a young policewoman entering a booth, just starting her shift, and I hurried into her lane. A slow, undecided woman from another flight (dark bags under eyes; an overnight from another continent) made a half-hearted move in the same direction, but I was faster. The policewoman was kind and there was something mild in her oh-so-relaxed-you-don’t-understand-she’s-checking-your-narrative-plus-your-passport chat. She asked me where in Canada did I live, I live in England now, and when I lived in Canada where did I live, in Toronto, is it pretty, it is beautiful you should visit, thank you, sir, thank you, welcome to France, have a great day, and you too.
Airports are confusing, man. All of them. Airfarts. Those small signs tell you nothing because they have to talk to everyone. Look at the people in all those corridors. Like zombies, right? The living dead of the dead ends! Actually, not a bad title for a song. I mean, you arrive, your brain is not working, because you’ve just been engaged in something unnatural, like flying, man, like fucking birds and who ever thought birds were smart? Once my plane was late and I had to play an hour after I landed. I couldn’t hold the rhythm, I couldn’t hit the note. Your whole body is not working properly.
And when everyone starts pulling out their fucking handbags,… I’m sure there are dead people in some of them. Are you sure it’s your handbag, and not your body bag? And then everyone drags their asses by the crew and cuts a grin and Thank you for flying with us and Thank you and enjoy… What’s with the fucking enjoy these days? Why is everyone, like, Enjoy? We are arriving in Paris and we hope you’ve enjoyed flying with us. No, I haven’t. I enjoy sex, I enjoy winning a hand, I enjoy when my music sells well, and I enjoy a line with my friends, but sitting for hours in a can with my knees up to my chin and the silent morning farts and the smell of someone socks underneath the seat? No. I enjoy when someone’s combing my pubic hair… No? So then fuck off with your enjoy, okay?
And then you drag your ass through those corridors and god forbid you lost sight of the people ahead of you because I’m sure you’d get lost and remain there, roaming, till the end of your days. Roaming. Roaming Rovers. Roaming Range Rovers. Ha.
And then you stumble upon the passport control. And it’s like in the war movies, no man’s land and obstacles and barbed wire… In the beginning they must have had barbed wire in the place of those tapes, but it was impractical because there was too much blood when the night flights arrived, ha! And you walk slowly through the labyrinth because there must be snipers on the side, you know, all those peachy babes on the side, you think they’re not trained assassins? Just try doing something, they would be like zook, zook, zook and you’d be chopped to pieces with their manicured hands.
You walk slowly, and you hope they’ll give you a cube of cheese in the end. I mean, just look at these spaces: huge, and nothing ever happens there between the babes eying you and the cops on the other end, everyone is just milling about and if there were no those tapes people would be spinning in circles. Never.
This time, okay, this time when I was going through there, something was happening. There were some cops in black uniforms, one of them was a woman, a serious babe if you need to know, papal balconies, and one guy was in civilian clothes, and they had a krimos in a wheelchair. He looked older, about 25, shaved head, sport suit, sneakers. Brownie. An Algerian, like. He looked like a krimos, right, you know those faces. And they had a single thick plastic tie around his wrists, black. One of those they use for fixing cables. These things are bloody brilliant, they look like nothing, but have you ever tried cutting one? And the krimos said something in English, like he was calling a lawyer, but get this, he said, I’m calling your lawyer! And the policewoman started laughing. Fantastic tits. In uniform. Man. Yeah, the krimos was calling their lawyer. How funny is that? And I’m thinking, man, you so fucking stupid you must be thinking that plastic tie is for flossing. They were probably expelling him from the country. To some shithole where he’d come from. I hope they gave him some vaseline.
The line was slow, and my high heels were killing me. I mean, you know how I have high heels even in a toilet, but perhaps all those women flying in tennis shoes are not that crazy. Anywho, they had in that section only women working, directing people, kind of. I mean, they created more problems than they solved. I’m not saying that men would do better, but these ladies were just not that good. This one that covered my section kept letting some people from the side to enter the line ahead of us. I couldn’t believe it. You should have seen her: all important in her uniform, and a nail missing. I’m not joking. And not any nail: the left thumb. Haha. Yes, I know. Anywho, I was, like, Babes, isn’t it time for your break? I mean, woman, leave just for five minutes, so I can finish with my passport and get lost from here. You know? One of those. I hate women who hate other women. In the end, I couldn’t resist, I said to her, How come all these people are parachuting in all the time? Who are they? And, what a bitch!, she didn’t even respond. She pretended she didn’t hear me, and just moved away from me. Like, there was a crowd over there that needed her help. Of course not. Nobody in this world needs her help. And then there was this older man, and she just let him ahead of me. Can you imagine the bitch! And he, I mean, his hair had already reached that stage when no decent creative director in any salon would take him on, and only juniors have to do him, or his head gets kicked out down the street towards the Turkish barber whose wife works in the local bank and had arranged the loan for him to open the shop so he would spend less time on porn.
Anywho, when I finally came to the booth, and there was this really good looking French policeman inside… I mean he was so good looking I was kind of hoping there would be a problem with my passport and he would have to arrest me and interrogate me in the back room… Aha! Hahaha, and, listen, just at that moment yelling started. Someone yelling, behind me. That’s a huge space, you know these areas in big airports, they could park two planes inside the passport control. Yes, just as I was giving the guy my passport, and he touched my fingers, he did, aha, he said, Merci, Mademoiselle, and smiled, and touched my hand. Yes, Mademoiselle from now on. Anywho, there was this noise, and it was so loud that he heard it inside his booth, behind the glass. He stood up to see over my shoulder, I turned around, everyone turned around. Well, that’s Paris, you know, with all the terrorist attacks it’s no wonder everyone’s on the edge.
Apparently, there was someone they were getting ready to deport—that’s what the handsome guy explained to me later. What I saw was someone in a wheelchair and a few people around him. Actually, I saw them with a corner of my eye when I was approaching through all those tapes, yes, you know…horrible, of course. That is so inhumane. To make us run around those tapes... as if that helps anything. I mean, like, a terrorist with a suicide vest would get so tired from running through the tapes that, what, he would faint before exploding himself?… Maybe, if he was in high heels… Ahahaha!... Where was I? Ah, yes: I had seen the guy in the wheelchair when I was approaching. There were two or three men around him and a woman in a black uniform. She looked very sexy in that, very popular with guys...Aha—handsome anyway, but in that outfit…I’m buying one for Halloween. Anywho. I couldn’t see the guy in the chair well. Mid-twenties. Shaved head. Tracksuit. Brownish, kind of pretty. An Indian, probably. I had thought he was some poor disabled young man, but what was puzzling was his clothing: people in wheelchairs rarely wear tracksuits. They had been quiet when I was passing by—I was a few metres away, true, but there was no commotion of any kind. Actually, I remember thinking how nice it was—I thought they were helping him—how professional they all were: quiet, composed, efficient. Everyone doing their job, helping this poor man get where he needed to be.
And then they started pushing his chair towards the boarding gate, and he started yelling. They were deporting him. Who knows, he probably had done something. They don’t expel people for nothing, right? I know, I agree, it’s never easy to listen to someone yelling for help…Aha. That’s what he was yelling, Help me, they are taking me away, don’t let them, help, help, help… Well, nobody was quite cool with that, but I think everyone was thinking the same as I was: He’d done something. Something. It’s never without something.
The tied man—every time I want to write shackled, or chained instead of tied, but he had a plastic tie on his wrists… Should I say TM? ™? As in Tied Men, as in the trademark of the contemporary European airports: people who are removed, cancelled, driven in wheelchairs, hands not shackled, no ball & chain, kindly exiled, moved quietly through the colon 767. Civilised extraction.
And, suddenly, this case stopped being civilised. They pushed the chair and he started making noise. Unpleasant noise, disturbing noise.
Perhaps it is time I formed my opinion on this issue. It is not as transparent as it seems. I, for one, think that the freedom of movement as a concept is pretty much passé. Has it ever been healthy and right? One goes where one can, where there are no tigers, dinosaurs, acid, storms, lava, SS, floods, cannibals, firestorms. Where one is wanted, or at least tolerated. That is not freedom. One doesn’t have it. One has never had it—the complete freedom of movement. That concept implies that we travel where we want, that it is the destination drawing us like a magnet, and that this force, coming from the target, this consciousness of the reward waiting in the end, is what gives us the power to reach the higher levels of being. This concept completely denies something that has been historically obvious: we run away from something much more often than we aim for something. Often, what we try to avoid defines us more precisely, in a more meaningful way, than our ideas and wishes and principles. We don’t like the sound of this, we are afraid that this approach would imply cowardice. Terribly old-fashioned, this approach. Knights charging ahead on white horses under red flags. No: covering, shaking, hungry refugees trying to remain invisible to the guardian dogs barking madly along the border. That is the twenty-first century I see.
From that perspective, why should one make a fuss about the place they will live in? Why yell and scream and resist when being deported? Isn’t one habitat equally safe or dangerous as the other? What mathematics of chance can one use to prove that for him it would be better to remain here, and not be taken there?
This man: he had tried here, in Paris; it didn’t work, he was unwanted; or he had killed. Perhaps he was a Raskolnikov, killed an old woman living alone on Montparnasse, or had stolen some trinket from a store in Quartier Latin, and—voila!—a black tie and a plane. To where? To where we are not.
That black tie around his wrists disturbed me, I must admit. I wish I hadn’t seen it. The ultimate insult of the black tie. It is not the ugly sight of steel around his wrists, not shackles, not chains, no cuffs, it doesn’t look like police work, does not look official. It leaves the impression of a jovial incident, almost a prank. Who uses such ties? Handymen. People who fix things. Transporters. Gardeners. The Police is not the Force, but your friendly help. Soon, we should be able to buy subscription to their service. A person whose hands are tied with such plastic looks like someone who could break free at any moment, only if they wanted to. Light approach. They are tied not to be forced into anything, but to be organised, because black ties organise, as we all know.
A very complex question indeed. I should take a stand in this. Perhaps in September, when I’m on sabbatical. I shall write an essay on this, it should help me clarify my mind. There is that funding I could apply for. Recently, they have started to open more about borders and migrations and such. Peer-reviewed, it has to be a peer-reviewed essay.
There. I am looking forward to hearing all about your conference in Prague. The rumours are the conflict between Myrna and Alice was spectacular. Write soon.
—Paris, early November 2019
Dragan Todorovic is the author of a dozen books of non-fiction, poetry and fiction. His novel Diary of Interrupted Days was shortlisted for Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Amazon First Novel Award and other prizes. The Book of Revenge, his memoir, won The Nereus Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize and was shortlisted for British Columbia's National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction. Sound art project In My Language I am Smart, commissioned by CBC Radio One and Deep Wireless Festival, was published on a CD in 2012. His works have often been anthologised.
He teaches creative writing at the University of Kent and is mostly interested in liminal forms of expression.
Short Fiction ~ Susmita Bhattacharya
First Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 8
Your hands are stroking my face – I feel a sensation of a weight dragging across my cheek – not the familiar caresses I’m used to. Or wake up to – usually. I miss your lips – the warmth of them pressing against mine, morning breath mingling with strong coffee earthiness. Freshly washed hair against the dampness of sweat-soaked sheets.
The machines tick and the tubes rattle. There is a heaviness against my throat. Something is thrusting, in and out, in and out. Gurgling like a simmering pot. Promises of a vegetable stew, with an abundance of summer’s carrots and potatoes that we grew in our allotment. I’ve lost track of the seasons. The months. The days. The hours. The machines remind me of every second that I’m alive. Every moment you talk to me, but I cannot respond. Your tears fall over my face and slide down my cheeks. I want to catch them in my palms and bathe my face with them. I want to tell you I’m still here.
They say I’m a score 1. No responses. No reactions. But I can feel you. I can sense your presence.
Yesterday I had a visitor. You wouldn’t believe it if I told you. It was Missy. She walked all over me, her paws treading on my chest, her purrs rumbling against my heart. She sat on my belly and sighed, and sighed. Her eyes never left mine. Our Missy. I searched her body for any signs of the accident. That awful night we had to rush her to the vet’s. Her quivering body covered in blood and fear. But no, her fur was glowing. Smooth. She was sassy, as she had always been.
Can you not see her? Perhaps not. Like you can’t see me. But we both are here, looking at you with such longing. Just hold us, once. Take us in your arms. And we will be whole again.
They say I’m a score 1. No responses. No reactions. But I can see you. I watch you in my mind’s eye.
You’re in a yellow swimsuit. We’re racing each other on the beach in Mallorca. I win, of course! You’re in your pyjamas. We’re having our first ever argument and you are winning. I fell in love with you that day. Like seriously in love. Even more than the day I had proposed to you? Exactly at the moment you told me to ‘eff off’. Did I ever tell you that? You cut your hair last year. Pixie cut. I didn’t speak to you for a week. And then I cut mine to match yours. People said we looked like sisters, and we laughed so much. Is it so hard to accept us? Do you remember those little moments? I have all the time in the world to go through all the moments – big and small.
The machines keep ticking and gurgling. I feel my pulse throbbing where the cannula pierces my arm. I can hear you. Your pleas for me to wake up. They echo inside my brain.
You say you have cooked my favourite meal. You promise to feed me fresh-roasted corn on the cob, rubbed with lemon and chaat masala. You say you won’t drink G&T again – that you will wait to have it with me. My tongue is coated, sticks to the roof of my mouth. There is no taste, no smell, no touch. Nothing in this void.
The machines keep ticking and gurgling. And as long as I can feel that throb, I am alive. You will wait for me, won’t you?
They say I’m a score 1. No responses. No reactions. But I am taking tiny steps forward. And each step brings me one second closer to you.
Susmita Bhattacharya is an Indian-born British writer. She won the Winchester Writers’ Festival Memoir Prize in 2016 and her novel, The Normal State of Mind (Parthian/Bee Books) was longlisted for the Words to Screen Prize at the Mumbai Association of Moving Images (MAMI) festival in India. She has been shortlisted for, and won, numerous prizes and awards and her work has been commissioned by magazines and for BBC Radio 4. Her most recent collection of short stories, Table Manners, was published by Dahlia Books (2018). It won the Saboteur Short Story Collection Prize in 2019, was finalist for the DLF Hall & Woodhouse Literary Prize and will be serialised for BBC Radio 4 Extra in January 2020. She lectures at Winchester University, facilitates the Mayflower Young Writers workshops in Southampton (An ACE funded ArtfulScribe project), and is a mentor supporting BAME writers for the Middle Way Mentoring project. Currently, she is working on her second novel.
Short Fiction ~ Murali Kamma
Second Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 8
When J first heard the murmuring voices—coming from his wife’s closet, no less—he wondered if she’d left the radio on. He walked over. Why would she have a radio there when she hardly spent any time in that confined space filled with neatly hung dresses, handbags, shelves holding more clothes, documents, and a small safe containing valuables?
Lately, with their daughter now in college, J and his wife seemed to have drifted apart. The ostensible reason for sleeping separately was his loud snoring, although it could have just as well been the growing silence between them. The silence took an ominous turn that evening, pushing their marriage into uncharted territory. But it was those bizarre voices, as if he’d gone bonkers, that started off the unsettling day.
J was in the master bedroom, where his wife slept, to pick up a few of his personal items before taking a shower. She’d already left for work. Not having been near her closet recently, it occurred to him that the radio might have been put there to fill the silence. There was no TV in the bedroom. Stepping into her closet, he got a whiff of her perfume and felt a shiver of longing. It became quiet again, and though J looked around guiltily, he couldn’t see even a clock radio anywhere. Switching the light off, he headed to the guest bathroom.
The murmuring sounds were gone, but not his disturbing thoughts. J was about to go down the stairs, after getting dressed, when he heard a man speaking in a low voice—and again, the sound seemed to be coming from his wife’s closet. Or was it in his head? It was creepy, giving him the chills. But J decided to get on with his routine. He wondered if his wife was having an affair, recalling her excitement when she told him about her new colleague, a Black man. Until now, she’d been the only person of color in her core team. Did her firm have policies on inter-office relationships? Of course, policies didn’t—or couldn’t—stop romantic desires.
“Now I feel a little less alone” were her exact words, which she delivered with a smile.
Slowly, J learned more about him. He was smart, she got along well with him, and he could be funny. Was he handsome? J wasn’t keen to find out, so he didn’t ask. She didn’t say anything about it, although J knew that he was younger than them (an advantage) and tall. Did he have a sonorous voice, perhaps not unlike what J heard upstairs? The colleague wasn’t married, crucially, but he did have a girlfriend. Not that those things mattered these days, J thought cynically. While the man had come from another city to take the job, his girlfriend wasn’t quitting her job to follow him. Interesting. Long-distance relationships were difficult to sustain, and before one did something about it, a girlfriend could become an ex-girlfriend.
That was when J downloaded the app on his iPad, almost as an afterthought while waiting for his coffee to heat up. And then, instead of scanning the day’s news headlines, as he normally did every morning over coffee, he opened this new app to explore it.
When he got back that evening, his wife was already home, to his surprise. Recently she’d been coming a little late because of, she said, management training—although J didn’t know who was training whom. He thought she was watching the news on TV, but she seemed more absorbed by her phone. Busy texting? He could tell that she’d gone to the salon, judging by her nicely coiffed dark hair. J greeted her, but she didn’t respond or raise her head.
And then came the bombshell. The iPad, which he’d left on the kitchen counter, was lying next to her on the sofa. She must have seen the app! How could he have been so stupid? When she finally looked up, her gaze was steady, fathomless. He shivered, albeit inwardly, as if an icy blast of air had escaped through the vent behind him.
“I see that you’ve been downloading apps,” she said. “Found anybody interesting?” Her tone was calm, even matter-of-fact, as if they were discussing a recipe he’d checked out.
What was visible on the tablet’s screen, however, was an attractive woman’s profile.
“Oh, I can . . . can explain that,” J said, feeling weak, as if his knees would buckle if he didn’t sit down soon.
Hesitatingly, he told her that he’d downloaded the dating app impulsively. It was just curiosity. He didn’t mention that the possibility of being cut loose after two decades of marriage filled him with dread. Nor did he say that his tentative exploration of the dating scene for middle-aged men was just a test. But J said that the first month was free, and he planned to cancel the membership and delete the app after doing some research.
“Research for what?” she said, switching off the TV.
“My next story,” he said, chuckling nervously. Then he added, recklessly, “Well, you may be having an affair . . . with that new person in your core team. Are you?”
Shock. Relief. Anger. Indifference. He couldn’t tell if her face registered any of those emotions, for she’d already risen from the sofa and turned away from him.
“I don’t want to talk about this now,” she said, just before exiting the room.
What did that mean? Was she too upset to talk, or did she want to reveal the truth later? J would have to wait to find out. Even somebody who never dreamed of cheating could fall in love unexpectedly—and, he thought ruefully, falling out of love could be just as abrupt. Perhaps his wife’s closet, if he was more patient, would spill the secrets of her heart.
Murali Kamma's debut book, Not Native, won the 2020 Bronze Independent Publisher Book Award (IPPY) for multicultural fiction. A collection of 20 short stories, of which 19 were previously published, it focuses on the lives of first-generation Indian immigrants in America. His fiction has appeared in Lakeview International Journal of Literature and Arts, Rosebud and Coweescoowee, among other publications. Currently the managing editor of Khabar magazine, he has interviewed many authors, including Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai, William Dalrymple, Chitra Divakaruni and Pico Iyer. He earned degrees from Loyola College, India, and SUNY at Buffalo in the United States.
Third Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 8
You go to the beach to get away from HIM. You take Arthur, your sloppy-tongued Labrador whose heart is as big as his head. Because you love Arthur. And he obeys you.
You, Chris, also take a flask, having filled it with a concoction of guilt, forgetfulness, and a splash of ambivalence. Vodka stirred in to dull the taste.
You consume your bitterness.
The beach is pebbled. You smudge a bum print to sit. You throw a furry tennis ball Arthur has mauled. He retrieves it and returns.
You drink. It singes your throat on the way down – the same throat you earlier yelled at HIM with – burning what’s hidden in your stomach.
Your SON, SAM. SAM, not Sarah, you insist. Never Sarah. SAM.
You live by your rules and SAM will as well. You blame Julie for leaving the way she did. Though you know you’d get a good telling off if she was here.
She’s a beauty, isn’t she, Arthur? you say of the sea. You think it glistens and sparkles for your eye.
It’s at this point, Arthur salivating at the thought of another throw, that the sea rises out of herself. She forms as a liquid human and drags her way towards you.
This is real, you aren’t that drunk.
When Arthur comes back, you cradle him into your lap. He is panting loud and you’re worried he knows something you don’t.
You won’t admit you’re scared.
Hey you, the sea says.
Who me? you ask.
Don’t play dumb. It’s the middle of May, you’re the only one here.
You want to call for help, to Sarah, but you can’t. You remember what you said to HER this morning.
I know you hear me, the sea says.
She stands over you.
So, why do you misgender me?
You find it an odd question and have no reply.
It is I who will tell you what to call me, okay?
You nod. Even you understand calling the sea, she, is as illogical as calling Sarah, Sam.
At that point, a cloud comes over and sends rain down on your head. Arthur, unfortunately, is collateral damage. The pebbles beneath you start to heat. You squirm.
Lightning cracks close to you and Arthur jumps from your lap and runs off. You’ve keeled over and your hands cover your head. Nature is warning you you’ll lose HER.
I whisper into your ear, though you can’t hear me anymore, that our child is not unnatural. That this, what you’re doing, is.
You’re crying. You think of Sarah growing HER hair and wearing my earrings, my clothes. That big smile of HERS in the mirror when she thinks no one sees.
You don’t have the words yet, but you hope to. Arthur bounds back into your embrace and you wipe your tears into his black coat.
The sea slides away from you and into the vast expanse of the world, turns and points, and tells you to be better.
Joshua Kepreotis is a writer born in Australia of Greek heritage, and living in Greece. He has published essays in 3AM Magazine and HuffingtonPost Greece, prose and poetry in 100 Words of Solitude, Lucky Pierre and others. He writes through his experience, his privilege, and challenges dominant ways of thinking.
Short Fiction ~ Anne Howkins
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 8
Now my lovelies, don’t be shy, come, come, gather round.
See this glorious wool, plucked from the underbellies of rare breed sheep only found on the southern slopes of Welsh mountains. Nothing lasting is made from poor quality materials. What’s that Bella? No, the sheep are perfectly safe from dragons, even those hidden deep within their shepherd’s secret musings.
Watch how my hands move as I start to work the wool - rolling, pinching, kneading, stabbing, forming into a ball or a sausage, or any other shape your body needs. Don’t be intimidated by the wool, it’s not the flesh of your firstborn, mewling as you push tiny limbs into scraps of pure white. Yes, Deirdre, it looks cruel, but you know that the best is formed when cruelty and the creative urge combine.
Now, take your own handful of beautiful wool, inhale the redolence of feral childhood, coconut-scented gorse, tart mountain bilberries, roll it between your palms. Close your eyes and allow the wool to soak up any feelings you need to relinquish - the fleece is your friend. Feel free to use it to mop the tears I see coursing down the cheeks of some of you, my dears. Grief, rage, let it out, let the wool soak it all away. Your creation will be all the better for it.
Now, take your needle. Stab away, stab, stab, stab. Don’t be shy, allow the needle to take you to another place. Stab, pinch, pull, stab. Mind your fingers. No Isobel, thimbles are a barrier, armour between you and the wool. Let yourselves feel your invention. Allow your blood to seep into the body you are moulding, every creation must contain some of us. Those of you who believe, think body of Christ.
Good, you all have your bodies. Imperfect as they may be, they are yours.
Gather around while I form a hind leg for a hare - I know some of you want to make hares. Such mystical creatures, gazing, the way they do. Running, the way they do. Who wouldn’t want to be a hare? See how I roll, pinch and stab. Did you know that all limbs begin in the womb as pentadactyl appendages? If your hare becomes an owl, don’t worry - wings are just decorated legs. And if your owl becomes a unicorn, or your unicorn becomes a baby, a lover, who are any of us to judge?
Now, start shaping your limbs, legs, wings, arms… go with your flow, whatever your body desires. Yes Diana, tentacles are good, although perhaps not to worry about the fine detail, we’ll look at how to add delicacy and nuance in the coming weeks.
Oh well done, my lovelies, just look what you’ve made, how much of yourself you’ve put into your craft.
Cherish asymmetry in creation - what matter that your legs are of unequal length? Or a wing hangs broken and trailing?
There is no wrong way to felt, my lovelies, or to feel.
Anne Howkins started writing flash fiction in 2019, and relishes the challenge of writing very short stories. She won the 11 Sentences Rock and Retreat West Water themed competitions in 2019. She has also been second in Retreat West’s monthly micro fiction competition, and third in a quarterly Flash 500 competition. Her stories have appeared in print and online most recently in Reflex Fiction, Flash Fiction Magazine, National Flash Fiction Day, Lunate, Bath Flash Fiction Anthology 2020 and Gobstoppers, Shrimps & Sour Monkeys. She is a member of the awesome Fosseway Writers Group, who have been incredibly supportive. When not writing, Anne looks after the finances of a charity, and looks after, trains and competes her diva pony. Tweets @anne_howkins
Short Fiction ~ Gillian Brown
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 8
Paul rubs the sleep from his eyes and stretches an arm over to Laura’s side of the bed. Her musty scent tantalises his nostrils but his hand finds an empty space. A surge of disappointment smacks him in the chest. She’d come home tired and late from work last night, and gone straight to sleep.
A strong coffee aroma filters in through the open door. With a sigh, he pulls on his jeans and tee-shirt and joins her in her kitchen. Laura doesn’t look up or speak. Caught in her spell, Paul sits down quietly across from her.
Concentration ripples Laura’s brow and forms crinkles round her eyes. The glass table between them reflects her fragile beauty. As she presses her lips together, Paul frowns. Her lipstick looks brighter than usual. Bolder, somehow.
Her left hand holds a delicately-shaped cup – her own creation, painted azure and gold. The sea and the sand, she says. Her eyes and hair, he thinks. He never touches her favourite cup for fear of breaking it.
In her right hand, she grips a fine bamboo stick between her first finger and thumb. The glittery purple nail polish takes him by surprise. Laura always wears black.
A froth of hot milk crowns the surface of the cafe latte. She gently draws the bamboo stick across the top. The pale foam parts, leaving a dark trace in its wake. Something clicks in Paul’s brain. She’s drawing a picture. He sharpens his focus. Laura’s art always contains a message.
A map of Africa? No. It’s a head. The contour of a face emerges, followed by hazel eyes, curly hair, a nose, and a smiling mouth. Something about it seems familiar. Paul can’t think what.
She hesitates a second, then grips the stick more tightly. She traces a beard, well-coiffed and trimmed to perfection. Corporate style. His chest tightens. He gazes uneasily at the crinkly hair. Lastly, she adds an earring. A drowning sensation sends his hand rushing to his neck.
Laura lays the bamboo stick on the table where it forms a dirty puddle. She clasps the cup in both hands and takes a sip, her plum-coloured lips embracing the rim. Drinking slowly, she savours each mouthful, then lays down the cup. A bitter taste spreads over Paul’s tongue.
Her eyes seek his. The truth is as clear as the portrait in her latte. He is Paul’s best friend, Tim. Her gaze softens. ‘I didn’t know how else to tell you,’ she says, the brutal truth delivered like a caress.
The silence grows heavy between them. Paul’s fists tighten in his lap. He stares back at the cup. Tiny fractures zig-zag across the porcelain. The cracks widen. With a splitting sound, the cup shatters into a thousand pieces.
Trembling, he pushes himself up from the table and heads for the door. A quick glance back. The cup is whole again. Slightly different. But just a cup, painted azure and gold.
Gillian Brown started out as a travel writer but now concentrates on fiction. Her inspiration often comes from her travels or real life experiences. Motivation comes from short story competitions, for which she has a mild – but enjoyable – addiction. She has had stories published in magazines, in anthologies and online and won and been shortlisted in various competitions.
Short Fiction ~ Soufyaan Timol
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 8
You tread towards the shore, bare feet bristling with scabs and blisters, old and new, that send sharp shivers up your legs. The sands shift to allow you pass, scrunches within itself, fine layer into fine layer. Your clothes are torn and blood seeps through the myriad cuts along your back, your neck; drawing patterns over your skin, tracing lines of vicious agony. Your strength is failing, your muscles screaming for clemency, sinews stretched to spasming soreness. Pain lances up your abdomen into your torso, through your battered throat and past the fissured bone of your jaw, into your temples. It flares with your steps, each heavier than the last. You feel none of it.
You walk towards the shore, a little girl in your arms. Her eyes are half-closed—half-open no more—the listless black irises lolling amid the reddish white. Beneath your fingers, her flesh is soft and scarce, her bones too gaunt, the shadow of a pulse still alive against your fingertips. Unmoving, her gaze is turned to the stars. Dirty dark hair flailing in the distraught winds, who offer you not a heartbeat of calm, as if the world itself is aware of the atrocity that walks its edge, is aware and cannot bear it. You failed.
You stumble towards the shore, the night quiet as a storm’s eye, and yet cruel as the most savage of whirlwinds. Left is waterside. Right is waterside. The girl trembles—No. Your arms holding her body tremble. Your shoulders shudder, taken by sudden seizures as you wonder, yet again, why death lives in your embrace. You cannot face what you haven’t saved.
You crumple on the shore, and the waves, roiling with the power of a fury you long consigned to oblivion, wash over your knees and through your blood-soaked clothes. Freezing against your skin, indifferent to the girl’s. The salt breaches your wounds and violates their chill, sets your flesh on fire, a fire immediately beggared by the tempest of your emotions. Tears roll down your cheeks to be instantly washed away. Agony. Woe. Sorrow ineffable. Violence confined and violence vain. You feel—nothing.
The girl’s body slips from your grasp and, with a soft, almost muted thud, settles into the submerged sands. The waves pull her back inch by inch, whistling a lament that sounds like a scream as they take her hands and close her eyes, as they accept her sleep as their own, as their dark depth extends its slender clawed fingers and drapes her body into a cloak of starlit black. Still as a corpse, you watch. Empty as one, you decide.
Soufyaan Timol lives in Mauritius and has published a couple of short stories in the yearly anthologies Collection Maurice. He aspires to be a writer and is currently working on an epic fantasy novel titled Killing Gods.
He can be reached through his email address : email@example.com
Short Fiction ~ Davina Philomena Kawuma
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 8
I could tell from the way the mannequin wore that dress that it would be too tight on me. (When like me you have trouble finding dresses that fit, your eyes develop a certain way; they train themselves to know when you should make someone go to the trouble of undressing a mannequin and when you shouldn’t.) But Anna, my sister, and Mummy, my mother, insisted.
I tried it on just so I could say ‘Didn’t I tell you?!’
The dress went past my waist, hallelujah!, you should have seen the smile on Anna’s face, but wouldn’t go much further up. Anna tugged and pulled at the bodice while Mummy steadied me.
I could tell from her rigid posture, and from the way her hand covered her mouth, that the shop attendant was afraid we were going to rip the bodice. But I suppose she was one of those people that truly believe in customers being kings, even when they are close to damaging your stock, because she said nothing.
I stared at the ceiling and sucked my stomach in for as long as I could. I was glad, in a way, despite having to go so long without breathing, that the shopping hadn’t turned out as badly as I feared it would. I love Anna and Mummy with all my heart and soul, but I dread the prospect of shopping with them. Not only do they want me to try everything on, but they also turn every fitting into a board meeting of sorts; sometimes they’ll even ask other customers for their opinions. Do you know how embarrassing it is to watch people try to politely turn down Anna and Mummy? Worse, still, after ALL that trouble, sometimes they’ll have made the attendant undress ten mannequins, they smile and say ‘katukomewo.’ This they say even though they have no plans of returning to the shop, which just adds to my embarrassment.
But what else could I do but stare at the ceiling and pray that nothing bad happened to the dress?
Anna eventually managed to get the bodice just past my nipples. At this point, perhaps to ensure that the dress went all the way up, Mummy’s hands clamped down hard on my breasts.
I screamed and pushed at her.
I was as startled as she and Anna were by my reaction.
I’d had ‘accidents,’ of a similar kind before but the pain had never been that bad. I pulled the dress down and said I didn’t like it and could we please go somewhere else?
Mummy said nothing, she immediately made for the exit, which meant Anna had to do the smiling and thanking and fake promising all by herself.
‘So, where next?’ I said, when we were all out of the shop.
Anna asked what had happened back there in the shop and I said Mummy hurt me. I tried to sound as casual as I could.
‘Where?’ Anna asked.
I pointed to where the lump was. I said it sometimes hurt and it sometimes didn’t. That it was really not that big of a deal, as I didn’t even really think about it. Anna and Mummy took turns feeling my left breast through my blouse, right there on the sidewalk. Some people pretended not to notice, others stood and pointed, but Anna and Mummy didn’t care. They prodded, gently, at the lump. Then they did the same with my right breast.
‘How long have you had it?’ Mummy asked.
‘I don’t know,’ I said, ‘A long time.’
‘When did it start hurting?’
I pretended to think about this, although I knew exactly when it first started hurting and what I’d been doing that day. But of course, I wasn’t about to tell Mummy anything about that day, so I just said, ‘I can’t remember.’
Davina is a Ugandan twice over (fed and bred). She loves to write as much as she loves to read. She has a wide range of interests, including the socio-cultural evolution of religion, mythology, and the modernization of language. She's passionate about improving the research culture in post-secondary school teaching and learning contexts. In her ideal world, she exists as a cross between a Rwenzori Turaco and a Venus Flytrap. She's currently pretending to write (among other things) her first novel, whose working title is "The Other Side of Day."
Poetry ~ Marianne Mersereau
Miracle in the Chicken Coop Chapel
“With God, all things are possible.”
~Jesus (Matthew 19:26)
I’m sure many miracles
took place in the chickens’ home-
like the narrow escape from a fox or snake,
but the one that stands out
is the tongue that was reattached.
My aunt tells the story this way:
How her sister fell and sliced her tongue
almost completely off. My grandmother
picked her up and ran into the chicken coop,
praying in the name
of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost
as the hens squawked their
praise in that sacred space. The torn
tongue was made whole again.
When you live far from the doctors
and you don’t have a car nor money to pay them,
you learn to believe in impossibilities.
What You Can Do
when you have to
will surprise you.
My mother assures me of this-
her story as proof.
Raised on less than a dime
in a house with no indoor plumbing,
her father died when she was nineteen,
his neck broken in a car wreck.
She never talked about him much,
just did what she had to do:
joined the Women’s Army Corps,
served as a post-WWII nurse.
Of the wounded soldiers she said,
They just kept coming.
I surprised myself a few times
doing what I had to do.
I trace the letter M on my palm:
Letting her go was hardest.
War Ghosts in the Attic
We grew up hearing the story
of the wooden legs
and how they used to be in the attic
of our old farmhouse
and got up to walk around at night.
They belonged to the former owner,
a Veteran of WWI who lost his real legs
on a battlefield in France.
My father tried to convince my mother
that the attic sounds were mice,
but they haunted her, so he burned them
in a bonfire and the attic became quiet
but the ghosts from my father’s past
kept walking through his dreams,
crying out in his sleep, reminding him
of how he’d lost pieces of his right leg
on a battlefield in WWII.
He Was Most Afraid of Lightning
Not of tumbling on the tractor
getting bitten by a copperhead
running out of money
having no health or crop insurance
losing the tobacco plants
to cut worms,
black shank disease or drought.
No, my father feared the dark clouds
electric air, flattened fields
cows sheltering underneath trees
the sudden jagged flash
of red orange yellow missile
searching the ground
for the tallest target.
We sat once on the porch
watching a storm,
saw a lone hay bale on a distant field
become a torch and my brother
recalled the terror
of being struck
while riding his bike,
he was alive to tell us about it.
Just another sunny day -
like December 7, 1941
was just another day.
I speak into the cell phone.
He’s eighty-four and far away.
I try to imagine him here
after the bombing,
his ship leaving for Okinawa.
He tells me that was a long time ago.
You want a souvenir, perhaps a cap?
His souvenir is the scar on his leg,
seared into memory.
Forty days in the hospital
like Jesus in the desert.
As kids, we knew which side of his lap
could not hold us.
I buy him a cap that he wears with pride,
try to feel his footprints on Waikiki-
Give thanks his name is not on the memorial.
Marianne Mersereau grew up in the Southern Highlands of Appalachia and currently resides in the Pacific Northwest. She is the author of the chapbook, Timbrel (Finishing Line Press, 2013). Her writing has appeared in The Hollins Critic, Bella Grace, Entropy, Still Point Arts Quarterly, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Deep South Magazine, Seattle’s Poetry on Buses, and elsewhere, and is anthologized in Public Poetry Houston’s Anthology, Enough. She was awarded a Second Place Prize in Artists Embassy International’s Dancing Poetry Contest in 2018.
OUR LOST HOME
Told we can take with us all we have, which is nothing, we stumble over crumbled brick worn orange with age from its original red in the abandoned schoolyard we now cross. Once our scraped knees embedded with stinging gravel bits bled, but now home’s no longer a place we can run. Overgrown with our absence, any attempt at being recognized there is futile. The color of our rooms is no longer our color. Faces sitting at the kitchen table are no longer our faces. Neighbors no longer know our names, are no longer our neighbors. Although we’re not there, will no longer be there, ought to infer we’re somewhere else. Somewhere not much different than where we once lived. Perhaps here on Earth when it existed as a planet and not the result of humans exceeding their grasp with nothing gifted in return to the universe. Nothing, that is, but ignorance, miscalculated suppositions, and collective waste. Nothing but disabled satellites orbiting a scrapyard in space without the usual weeds, chain-link fencing, mud-deep potholes, or the flaking rust our still breathless air relishes. Nothing but the brilliance long dead stars freeze in our sight for as far as we can see without once looking back.
NO ADMISSION CHARGE
From where has the world come that we must all leave so soon? Was it already there before we arrived or something we created along the way? If so, what’s stopped us from making it perpetual? Is it that dreams come true only when we sleep? Is it that time’s accumulation weighs us down, wears us out only because we allow it? Is there no chance of us ever becoming perennial? Do we first have to be akin to purple trillium, fragrant tarragon or apricot bearing trees? Must we always start naked, crack open then cry aloud like a seed the Earth softens before it can sprout? And what of the growth over which we learn to stand and admire if not our own? What besides Earth nourishes it, what drips a simple water between the parted lips our mouths yearn to open from each fragile root end? What of the Earth we leave behind, left to its own revolutions? Will anyone be there? Will everyone be somewhere else? And that somewhere else, where will it be? Does searching for it mean it’s lost or by admitting it exists suggest it can be found? Either way, before every desolate expressway and abandoned boulevard we come across, it’s been hard not to look both ways.
Forced to learn an acronymic language, I choose silence and nod when questioned. The little I comprehend has been supplemented by a desire to preserve myself. I’ve grown sick of seeing my reflection in bent fenders at auto repair shops, in shiny magnetic security strips lining glass doors into bank vestibules, in a grocery scale’s thumb-smudged digital read-out, in a pharmacy counter’s closed-circuit tv, on the convex back of spoons dropped by babies off height-chair trays, in between a bloody fat speckled knife and its blade’s blinding flash, in wrap-around department store dressing room mirrors, at the bottom of not quite boiling pots of water, in car rear and side view mirrors, and in sneeze-guards protecting all casino buffets and salad bars lining the boulevards of false aspirations. Anything I can do to escape myself and avoid what all these sightings have done to me, becomes a maniacal priority. If I’m going to see myself, then I’d rather it be at the edge of this lake overlooking ice crystallizations caught between black shore rock. I’d rather be where water droplets collect in a cup open tulip petals form for a few short mornings. I’d rather be within a rainbow’s mist that shimmers my body in its transparent colors. Be this way or else fall beneath the spell of a language that’s no longer a language, a language whose utterances are mere symbols of the symbols words were never meant to be.
Snow, making ghosts of the wind, swirls past us on this desolate county road. In need of a fire, we hurdle guard rails in search of a place protected from road and wind. Night inches toward us. The sound of water’s rapid flow draws us closer to its source. Just over one of many low drumlins, we glimpse a fast moving creek splashing rock and twisted tree limbs fallen across its furious path. We locate a dry space under thick pines close by. The fire is small at first. Bits of twigs, dry grass tips. Either damp or caked with frozen mud, the wood’s kept close by the fire, fed slowly so as not to make smoke. Careful not to give ourselves away, to stay hidden, invisible to all but each other. If caught, we’d be jailed until a trial determined a verdict that would lock us away from ever hiding again. Careful never to divulge our whereabouts or that we even exist, we’re content never having to show up where we’re unexpected. Invisibility’s our presence. We’re at peace with the dust our shoes collect as a reminder of who we are with each and every step.
Paul B. Roth has been published widely in the United States and his work has been translated and appeared in journals from Japan, Peru, Israel, Bolivia, Italy, Ecuador, India, China, Mexico, Italy, Romania, Estonia and the UK. He is the author of seven collections of poetry of which his most current are Cadenzas by Needlelight (Cypress Books, 2009), Words the Interrupted Speak (March Street Press, 2011), Long Way Back to the End (Rain Mountain Press, 2014), and Owasco: Passage of Lake Poems (Finishing Line Press, 2018). In 2018, he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He lives in Fayetteville, NY where he’s served as editor and publisher of The Bitter Oleander Press since 1974.
Poetry ~ Sumera Saleem
Inside, I feel the pulse, keeping hours in my skin,
And care a pillowed heart.
I remember how distance was never
Stretched on the map of our troubles.
Connection like a munia kept soaring up
In a space called peace, serving
Messages of life and death, soul and breath.
Outside the window, my senses hang on the future,
Fragile, moving like fluttering shirts,
Hanging on a clothes line,
Oscillating in the midst of the wind.
Fears sail within unknown zones of silence.
Flying in every direction,
And settling nowhere is the dust of unreality.
A while ago, pigeons were freely wheeling on
A cool air, but when a sense of danger pulsed
Through their wind-ruffled bodies,
They hurriedly alighted on the wall,
A rapid rustle back home.
Even inside the cage, they kept on cooing as if
they were still busy defending their territories
Against rising dark clouds just like the way
We have been doing during quarantine,
Rushing inside our cages.
A hurried flight back home to defend our territories,
When every whiff of the wind was a warning,
No other defense against rising wind we could think.
It's just now that we’ve realized or perhaps
We haven’t, that despite having
Gadget-driven success how uncertain
The ends we all share, all,
Including the beings we used to control.
We all long for truth, be it alien or native
Though our bodies discredit outsiders
In diseased cages of ribs for the desire to heal,
Being tired of how everyone should feel.
Three devils of our ailing doom:
The zodiac, the unreal fears and the unneeded answers
When questions frown at good hearts
That we all wear on our body sleeves,
Slipping from which is the silk of senses
All naked, slaves of our own treachery.
Lies are the leaves we cover with our nakedness,
Flipping answers, flopping questions,
Truth is stubbornly nude, a misery to the mirror of being.
Some keep up the tradition of wearing
The cloaks of dignity, trimmed with many rags of empty pockets;
Kept unstared by the times, damned by frenzy-struck prayers.
Sumera Saleem is a lecturer in the Department of English Language and Literature, the University of Sargodha, Sargodha, Gold medalist in English literature from the University of the Punjab, and former sub-editor in the department of English, University of the Punjab, Lahore, Pakistan. She has published poems in National and International literary magazines.