1.49 The Fifth Letter

 c9acopyright 2016

The Fifth Letter

a story by

Richard Manly Heiman

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“Thank you so very much, everyone, for a wonderful evening. These five years at Holy Family Anglican Remnant have been amazing for us!” Reverend John Mittere told the assembled guests at his farewell party.
“I want to second that,” said Mrs. Mittere. “You are family to us–truly.”
“We’ll miss you,” continued her husband. “Worshiping together every Sunday… Bible study… watching your children grow in body and spirit. We’ll miss the potlucks and retreats, picnics and summer campouts. But—know that we’ll be watching over you still. From a distance, like the song.” Some of the older parishioners chuckled.
“Well, dear,” his wife said, “I won’t miss the camping as much as you will.”
This drew general laughter. Ladies nodded knowingly.
“We’ll miss you too, preacher!” shouted Elias Fryar. “No one explains Ezekiel like you do!”
“Who will eat all the cookies during coffee hour now, John?” said Clare Little, the organist.
“Oh, you’ll manage,” said their pastor. Then taking his wife’s hand, he announced, “So farewell everyone—at least for now. And remember–perseverance!”
With those words, in front of 48 staff and churchgoers, John and Teresa Mittere vanished. Instantaneously.
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In the weeks that followed numerous theories were advanced. Tommy Holcomb, leader of Teens Afire, thought it was a gag. “He was a practical joker, you know.”
After a brief investigation, authorities ruled out foul play and figured it for a publicity stunt; a collective conspiracy to attract new members.
Zach Rodgers, oldest parishioner and considered highly eccentric, had other ideas: “I always thought those Mitteres was up to something. I think the both of ‘em was alien scouts sent here to spy on us before the rest of their gang invade!”
The word in ‘the street’—the middle school youth group—was that pastor and wife only appeared to be present that night, and what everybody really saw were just highly sophisticated holographic projections.
The ladies in the Altar Guild continued to gossip about the frequent trips the Mitteres took. “They said they were going to conferences and such—but how do we really know?” Hattie James said more than once.
Over time all the talk and speculation died down. A new pastor was installed and things gradually returned to normal. But church secretary Julia Petry dwelled for months on the pastor’s final statement. When she finally finished pondering, she wrote “perseverance of the saints” on dozens of index cards and taped them up all over her apartment.

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Richard Manly Heiman lives in the California “Gold Country” where there is little gold and no water from which to pan it. He works as a substitute teacher and writes when the kids are at recess. Rick is pursuing an MFA with Lindenwood University.
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1.48 One Summer Night

cemetery

One Summer Night

a story by

Ambrose Bierce

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The fact that Henry Armstrong was buried did not seem to him to prove that he was dead: he had always been a hard man to convince. That he really was buried, the testimony of his senses compelled him to admit. His posture — flat upon his back, with his hands crossed upon his stomach and tied with something that he easily broke without profitably altering the situation — the strict confinement of his entire person, the black darkness and profound silence, made a body of evidence impossible to controvert and he accepted it without cavil.
     But dead — no; he was only very, very ill. He had, withal, the invalid’s apathy and did not greatly concern himself about the uncommon fate that had been allotted to him. No philosopher was he — just a plain, commonplace person gifted, for the time being, with a pathological indifference: the organ that he feared consequences with was torpid. So, with no particular apprehension for his immediate future, he fell asleep and all was peace with Henry Armstrong.
     But something was going on overhead. It was a dark summer night, shot through with infrequent shimmers of lightning silently firing a cloud lying low in the west and portending a storm. These brief, stammering illuminations brought out with ghastly distinctness the monuments and headstones of the cemetery and seemed to set them dancing. It was not a night in which any credible witness was likely to be straying about a cemetery, so the three men who were there, digging into the grave of Henry Armstrong, felt reasonably secure.
     Two of them were young students from a medical college a few miles away; the third was a gigantic negro known as Jess. For many years Jess had been employed about the cemetery as a man-of-all-work and it was his favourite pleasantry that he knew ‘every soul in the place.’ From the nature of what he was now doing it was inferable that the place was not so populous as its register may have shown it to be.
     Outside the wall, at the part of the grounds farthest from the public road, were a horse and a light wagon, waiting.
     The work of excavation was not difficult: the earth with which the grave had been loosely filled a few hours before offered little resistance and was soon thrown out. Removal of the casket from its box was less easy, but it was taken out, for it was a perquisite of Jess, who carefully unscrewed the cover and laid it aside, exposing the body in black trousers and white shirt. At that instant the air sprang to flame, a cracking shock of thunder shook the stunned world and Henry Armstrong tranquilly sat up. With inarticulate cries the men fled in terror, each in a different direction. For nothing on earth could two of them have been persuaded to return. But Jess was of another breed.
     In the grey of the morning the two students, pallid and haggard from anxiety and with the terror of their adventure still beating tumultuously in their blood, met at the medical college.
     ‘You saw it?’ cried one.
     ‘God! yes — what are we to do?’
     They went around to the rear of the building, where they saw a horse, attached to a light wagon, hitched to a gatepost near the door of the dissecting-room. Mechanically they entered the room. On a bench in the obscurity sat the negro Jess. He rose, grinning, all eyes and teeth.
     ‘I’m waiting for my pay,’ he said.
     Stretched naked on a long table lay the body of Henry Armstrong, the head defiled with blood and clay from a blow with a spade.

1.47 Core Of The Matter

candles GIF 3

copyright 2015

Core of the Matter

a story by

Bruce Costello

 
He was wearing a larger man’s suit, or he had shrunk. He did not introduce himself but sat on the only chair and stared at Joan, who was looking towards the grey ceiling, hands behind her head on the pillow. He said nothing.
She knew who he was and why he had come.
“Where does discontent start?” she said. “You yearn for something, but don’t know what, and the ache for it becomes unbearable.”
The man’s face was pale and gaunt. His eyes were gentle.
“I have times of clarity,” Joan continued. “The moments before sleep are when I feel most insightful, jumping from one memory to another, like a child after a day at the zoo. I realise now what my husband did was natural enough. And what I did to him in revenge was unforgivable.”
She screwed up her face.
“Time and tears washed over me and wore me away. I was like a figure of sand abandoned to the incoming tide. And now I am here. In this place.”
Joan sat up, ran her hands through thin hair and opened her mouth wide, but sank back onto the bed.
“I came to the conclusion that life was not a mission but a farce, a relentless loss of illusion, an unquenchable longing for the unattainable,” she said, after a while.
The man stood and began to pace the room, head bowed, glancing up occasionally through half closed eyes.
“My scientist husband,” Joan went on, “knew everything, but he had no space left in which to yearn. He understood relativistic velocities and gravity fields and the theoretical probability of a black hole swallowing the planet. But he knew nothing of frequency norms or causative factors in female emotionality. Is it normal for a woman to sob nearly every day of the week?” She scowled. “His only yearning was for the recent past when his lust was an itch and my body was the object he scratched against, like a cow on a fence post.”
The man stopped pacing and sat, perched on the edge of the chair. He turned his face to Joan.
Her voice began to tremble. “I loathed my parishioners and their self-righteous hypocrisy. I hated my unfaithful husband. I came to the conclusion that my existence had neither meaning nor value…and life on Earth was nothing but a cruel joke, created by a sadist.”
The man coughed, took a handkerchief from his pocket and spat out phlegm.
“Forgive me,” he whispered. “I am nearing the end.”
“Even You?” answered Joan.
“What hope does faith have?” he asked. “Did even one fragment survive your lifetime of experience?”
“No, no faith, just one fantasy…to lie like a child between the breasts of a mother, then to re-enter and find peace in the oblivion of fusion.”
The man sighed and Joan reached out to touch his hand.
“In reality,” she said, “I look forward only to death, which is also what I am most afraid of. I long to die, to sleep, only not in the cold of the grave or the heat of the fire, but in the embrace of the universe where a living force may breathe forever in my chest.”
The man left his chair and sat on the bed beside Joan.
Leaning over her till their faces were almost touching, he caressed her forehead with his fingertips.
The sun streaming through the bars in the high window made her silver hair glow like gold.
Then the Earth flashed black.
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She was inside a nothing with neither feature nor color. The man was holding her but he was not there. Nor was she.
“I’ve been here before,” she murmured.
“Yes,” he answered.
“When?”
“Before you existed.”
“But there’s nothing here.”
“On Earth, discontent was your reality. Here there is no discontent, so you feel no reality.”
A sun arose. Colors dawned and spread. Land, sea, and sky appeared, separate, yet blended. Features emerged, like figures coming towards her with linked arms. Clouds floated across the face of the sky, singing. And words flew like birds, some soaring, others flitting about like fantails.
“Feel the calm,” the man said, “not as you felt it on Earth. It is not the quiet of a sleeping kitten. Nor the deep peace of a pool between rapids. It is a calm with neither beginning nor ending. It is the peace of absence – the absence of tears.”
The man touched her lips. The contents of her unconscious mind spilled from her mouth – drives, impulses, anxieties, desires – and guilt-ridden memories, including an image of her husband with a bullet hole in the centre of his forehead, perfectly round, edged in crimson.
“You can’t take those in there. They are prohibited items,” said the man. “Please leave them in the bin provided by the turnstile.” He smiled. “The question now is not whether we can forgive you, but whether you can forgive yourself.”
Joan gathered up her baggage and dropped it in the bin as she glided through the turnstile past the man, her eyes sparkling like newborn stars.
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Bruce Costello is a New Zealander. After studying foreign languages and literature in the late 60s, he spent a few years selling used cars. Then he worked as a radio creative writer for fourteen years, before training in  psychotherapy and spending 24 years in private practice. In 2010, he semi-retired and took up writing for fun and to avoid housework. Since then, he’s had 75 stories accepted by mainstream magazines and literary journals in seven countries. He still does housework.

1.46 The Lords Of Chickamauga

8JKZrGtcopyright 2016

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The Lords Of Chickamauga

a story by

Ron Yungul

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Private Israel Halstead stepped gingerly over the ashen forms lying around him. He had to watch his feet lest they fall with slippery uncertainty onto what were pieces of limbs or heads or the red, ropey strands of human innards scattered with grotesque abandon about the rugged terrain near Pigeon Mountain. These riven remains were all that was left of his platoon, already reduced to about twenty men and had Private Halstead not chosen to bivouac some distance away from them last night after a fit of the “skeedaddles,” he would have been amongst them. He would have been even further away had not the weather, bitterly cold and wet that night, compelled him to seek shelter under an outcropping of rock along a bend in the creek which lent its name to the great battle set to resume that day.
It was the morning of September 19th, 1863. Detached from Major General James Negley’s division, in the middle of what would become known as the Battle of Chickamauga, Private Halstead’s company had the unpleasant task of determining Confederate strength in a small area known as Dug Gap. The private had joined the cause of Union seven months earlier with thoughts of grand deeds, and to help restore the 11 stars that had been so rashly and unlawfully torn away from the colors. But this—this was madness. He was sick and horrified and angry that things could have come to such a ghastly conclusion. There had been no warning as he lay in his little granite lean-to, no sign of the carnage that had taken place so close to where he fitfully slept. But then the thunder and constant prattle of rain had provided likely cover for the hard sounds of death and dismemberment. The morning had dawned with a preternatural stillness as if the myriad bird and insect life, which normally provided an unceasing hum in the forest, were themselves shocked into submission by the extent of what had happened. He would have continued his clandestine exodus had not the bitter metallic smell of blood stirred a last remaining particle of duty to his comrades and forced him to return to camp.
His eyes searched for a horse, but either they were run off or the noises of battle, or the smell of powder, smoke, or death itself must have spooked them and God only knew where they were now. Just as he was about to retreat back into the woods a strange, guttural sound came to his ears—as of a heavy rasp being run across the bark of one of the many spruce pines which surrounded him. Almost as a reflex, he crouched behind a tree. Low on his haunches, he looked across the broken forms before him, their contorted torsos standing out Union blue and blood-red against the grass. In the middle, one heaved upward as he heard the gurgling rasp again. He wanted to run… to blot the whole damn scene from his mind, but his legs, so eager to disobey his head and save themselves last night, now disobeyed a second time and began to lurch forward toward the source of the noise. He stepped back into the field of death and approached a corporal, lying face up, eyes glazed, a horrible wound in his neck. A bolt, as from a crossbow, lay broken near him, stained with blood. The corporal sensed the private’s presence. A hand reached up, a hand missing two fingers with a third dangling from the second joint, leaving the forefinger pointing in damning accusation. The private recoiled instinctively.
“What in God’s Name happened?” Halstead asked.
The corporal’s words came out in a soft hiss. “They came out of the mist…they chopped us to pieces as we slept.”
It must have been a Rebel raiding party. But why hadn’t the pickets stopped them or at least given a warning? Halstead asked the corporal just that.
“Nothing can stop ghosts.”
“Ghosts?”
But Halstead could clearly see that the life force was quickly ebbing from the corporal. A cloudy film had formed over his eyes and they began to sink into their orbits, becoming expressionless. His mouth went slack.
“Ghosts you say?”
Only a few words passed through blackening lips. To Halstead they sounded like, “Knights. In shining armor. Shining in the moon…” The corporal’s head lolled to one side, his eyes unseeing. A heave went through him and his last breath passed out in a great exhalation. A few tremors and he was gone.
Halstead looked upon the still form for a few more seconds then rose to his feet. Grasping his Enfield rifle until his knuckles blanched, he made his way once more to the copse of spruce, poplar, and sycamores bordering the southern end of the field. He pushed through the undergrowth and came to a small dirt lane that seemed to materialize only then between the trees. The morning fog was cold and flitted through the forest, leaving small pockets of mist where it collected in the swales and depressions of the forest floor. A sense of dread overcame him, smothering him like the fog itself. He began to quicken his pace down the lane, the sound of his footfalls muffled by the swirling mist. A turn, down a gentle slope, splashing through a stagnant creek, up a rise and down again. The woods grew thicker. Another turn. He found himself in a grove of yellow poplars, unmixed with any other kind of foliage, otherworldly in its pureness and in the yellow-green light that filtered through the canopy, bathing everything in a ghastly pallor. Halstead kept his eyes riveted on the ground before him. The fog was drifting in thick clouds here, by turns obscuring then revealing the road ahead. Something made him look up.
There, ahead in the road about a hundred paces, six human forms on horseback, their silhouettes crenulated, with pointed heads and pointed feet; a few grasped crossbows slackly at their sides. The others held what looked like lances and broadswords. Beneath them, horses but not horses, their shanks and necks articulated in outline like wooden toys. Halstead lurched one more step and froze, afraid to move. The forms faded to white, and back into view as the fog shimmered around them. The dying words of the corporal came to him. Knights in shining armor, Halstead thought. They materialized once more into the black silhouettes of armored horses and riders. One gave a start and turned his mount towards Halstead. Then another did likewise. His legs were finally cooperating with his brain, and did its bidding. He dashed from the road, knocked against a poplar, and dropped his rifle. He knew it was useless against apparitions anyway. He lurched through the grove, his eyes wild, his body senseless, his mind a runaway train of animal reason, pushing aside all thoughts but one: how to get from here to anywhere at the highest velocity possible.
Halstead’s fear began commingling with a new feeling: guilt. He thought of his mother’s rationale behind spirits. She was uneducated and had that strange mixture of common sense and superstition so common to women of her station. To her, everything had its purpose. Apparitions, ghosts, spirits, whatever one wanted to call them, they manifested themselves for a reason. They were the remnants of our spiritual and temporal transgressions and they served to set us once more upon the path of moral salvation and redemption. They were the tools of God, and to ignore them and run from them was to wallow through the stagnant stream of spiritual effluence that ran alongside the road of life.
A deafening flutter–a flock of wild pheasants exploded from the foliage in front of Halstead–sent him reeling on a new tangent, out of the poplar grove and into a denser part of the forest. Chivalry is not dead, he thought, it’s alive and well and pursuing me to ground. He became aware of a sound—the wheezing of his own breath, which he was rapidly running out of. There, up ahead—a clearing. Something whizzed by his ears and struck the ground ten or so yards ahead of him, furrowing into it with a little burst of earth. He ran out into the clearing, into the unblemished sun which had suddenly appeared through the broken sky, and became aware of men–men in blue who were emerging from the shadows of the forest at the far end of the clearing. They were raising their rifles and taking aim. At him. He was running into an ambush. They had discovered his transgression, his treasonous fear, and were going to shoot him dead. He dropped to the ground as the first volley exploded before him, sending its echoes careering through the valley.
New sounds smote his ears—shrieking horses and a strange clatter of metal on metal and metal on earth. The blades of grass pressed into his face. Another volley as a second line of men fired, and the sounds behind him began dissipating with whimpers and sighs. Now a third volley—not of bullets but of prattling voices as his compatriots advanced toward him. There was the sound of surprise in their murmuring. Slowly Halstead raised his head. He pushed himself up onto his elbows. He craned his neck around and looked behind him. There in a heap were the knights in armor, forming a single body of tangled extremities wrapped in metal, lying under the writhing bodies of their mounts.
Halstead turned his head back to see a captain slinking toward him, a new Spencer rifle in his hands.
“You all right, private?”
“How did you do it? How did you stop them?”
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The captain went over to survey the mass of human and animal wreckage. “There ain’t much can stand up to a blizzard of .58 caliber minie balls.”
Then Halstead became aware of another sound… the bleating, despairing voice of an old man. “My young men. My young men…” he wailed. Dressed incongruously in 18th century breeches and buckled shoes, he tottered out of the woods towards the private and the scene of destruction, waving his arms in little despairing circles. The captain turned and ran toward the old man, catching him as he fell forward.
“I’m sorry, old feller. We had no choice. Another ten feet and they would have cut down that boy there, and maybe made mincemeat of some of mine.”
Halstead got up onto his feet at last. Again, that familiar sound of rasping on bark–with a metallic echo this time. He slowly made his way to one of the suits of armor, spilled from a dead horse, one foot in a stirrup. He raised the visor and saw the eyes of a boy, perhaps thirteen years old. A strand of straw-colored hair, matted with blood, stuck to his forehead. The glassy stare, the sunken eyes, the breath loud and sonorous, coming at longer and longer intervals until they finally stopped. He raised another visor. This one, perhaps eleven, already gone. Another… and another. All boys. All probably under fifteen years of age. The knights of old must have been small men, Halstead thought, his mind taking desperate, inappropriate diversions.
“My boys,” cried the old man again as the captain led him back to the company.   
He turned suddenly to Halstead and scrutinized his face. “I’ll want to talk to you. Want to know what you’re doing so far from your unit. You have all the looks of a runner.”
Private Halstead, his legs shaking and tired from their independent thinking, followed the captain. They made their way through the skirmish line that was just now standing down and breaking ranks to the rear. Halstead found a tree stump and sat on it. Another private sat cross-legged next to him and pulled out a satchel of tobacco and a pipe, which he started to fill. “Poor old buzzard.” He handed the sack of tobacco to Halstead, who shook his head.
“Who is he?” A pause, and with a tired, sweeping gesture towards the dead, “and who are they?”
“Old feller is the superintendent of Troy Military School for boys. Just over the ridge there. Come looking for a bunch of cadets who raided the Armory museum of the school. Thought they’d help out the cause wearin’ their purloined armor. He been lookin’ for ‘em and I reckon he’s found ‘em. Poor old buzzard.”
Halstead heard something else before his thoughts turned to his fate. It was the sound of shovels meeting earth and the gentle muffle of that earth falling into growing mounds….
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Ron Yungul’s inspirations as a writer range from the works of Ambrose Bierce to Robert Bloch. When speaking with Mr. Bloch one cold Hollywood night several decades back, and revealing that he, too, was a writer of horror, the master replied “Well, misery loves company…” Ron is also a screenwriter and has projects in development with Indiana Girl Productions in Hollywood. He lives with his wife and son in Burbank, California, and can be reached via rsyungul (at) yahoo (dot) com

1.45 Sarnai

copyright 2016

Sarnai

a story by

Adrienne Provost

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Three hours from a small village in the Southwest region of the Gobi Desert sat a crumbling border control office. On this particular day, within this building, there were three men, one large vehicle, and a crate containing an animal of indeterminate breeding. Beyond the building there was a vast expanse of open space, and an immense amount of golden sand. Aside from the building and those gathered in its little office, there was not a tree, structure, human, or animal for as far as the eye could see. To be sure, this was an atypical day, as were most other days passed in the border control office without a single occupant, save the Senior General, who maintained his daily vigil with diligence. He managed his office with supreme authority, and was true to his imperial duties with steadfast dedication despite the overall monotony of the position.
However, the appearance of the first man, a squat German, invigorated the Senior General. He was pleased to have the opportunity to complete his most sacred of duties. The foreigner arrived at the checkpoint in a large vehicle and rudely requested to be expedited through the process. The Senior General had determined, most appropriately, that this man should be detained for further questioning, and his vehicle, with the enclosed animal, was therefore confiscated and parked under the shade of a lean-to beside the building. But before the first question could be asked, the second man, a native Mongolian villager, arrived in a frenzy. He demanded to see the German. Of course, as was the only clear option, the Senior General secured both men, separately, in locked rooms for further inquiry.
Choosing to begin with the Mongolian villager over the foreigner, the Senior General entered the small room and sat at the rickety wooden table, wiping dust from its surface as he sat.
The Senior General flipped open a folder of papers. “Why are you crossing the border, Sir?”
The old man met the official’s gaze. His eyes were almond brown, the sides of each curved upward into one of many weathered wrinkles that scattered his face like an ancient map. He replied in a gravelly voice. “I am Bat-Ochiryn Tuul. My people care for the Takhi horses.”
“Takhi,” said the Senior General. “You mean the Przewalski horses?”
“Yes, Sir.”
“Ah, yes.” The official tapped a finger on the file in front of him. “I have just read about this. They have brought these extinct horses back to their homeland. They brought the horses back to your village, Mr. Tuul?”
“Yes!” Mr. Tuul was pleased that the Senior General knew about his village. “Yes, many months ago, people from the West came to our village. First it was a woman from across the ocean, from the Smithsonian Institute World Zoo. She visited us three times. She told us that her zoo had rescued ten Takhi and had bred them in America, and that they wanted to bring them back to their homeland. She told us that we would be given back our Takhi and that it would be our duty to protect them, just as our ancestors did.” The old man smiled. “This is the way of our people.”
“Was this man, the German in the other room, one of the group from the zoo?” asked the Senior General.
Mr. Tuul smiled sadly, unfolded his hands and spread them before him. “I thought so, yes. But it was trickery!”
“What do you mean?”
Mr. Tuul hesitated, rubbed his leathery hands together, and thought for a moment. “Do you know the legend of the Uylak?”
“No, I am not aware of this legend.”
Again, Mr. Tuul paused; he shifted in his chair, and his gaze slid from the Senior General to the wooden table. “The Uylak is the shape-shifting werewolf of the desert. To understand, you must know that at the time of our ancestors, the dunes were not made of sand, but instead, the land was rich with beautiful plants, fruits, and running water. But most splendid of all was the rose bush which grew in the center of our village. It was a giant bush, towering over the valley, yet it grew only one spectacular flower—a rose so beautiful that the sight of its petals could cure the sick and save the damned. The old man leaned toward the Senior General conspiratorially. “You see, this flower was the gateway to heaven’s realm. And as the gateway, the beauty of heaven spilled from its velvet petals and extended across our land.” He sat back. “But, one night, an exceptionally large full moon rose over the dunes, and in its shadow lurked the Uylak—the werewolf. When the Uylak entered the forest, he was entranced by the beauty of the rose in the moonlight, and bewitched by its power. In the darkness of night, the wolf went to the flower and with great white fangs he bit the rose from the bush, swallowing its power into his body. As soon as he did this, a dust storm ascended over the valley; heaven’s punishment to the wolf for his selfishness. The Uylak was ashamed and, unable to undo his actions, he ran away, taking heaven’s gate with him and leaving the golden dunes scattered with heaven’s ashes.” Mr. Tuul ended his story by placing his palms on the table.
The Senior General tapped the table. “Mr. Tuul, this is an interesting story, but it does not explain why you are here, or why you are seeking the foreigner in the other room.”
“This foreigner—he is the Uylak!”
The official blew out a long exaggerated breath and leaned closer to the villager. “Please, why don’t you start at the arrival of the foreign man in your village?”
Mr. Tuul sat forward in the uncomfortable wooden chair and began. “Three days have passed since the man appeared. He came over the mountains like a dragon descending onto the sacred garden—the tires of his caravan sending up smoke, like a warning from the sand. I should have known it then, I should have seen.” He placed his hands against his forehead and continued. “This man came to the village alone. I had just returned from washing when I saw him exit the vehicle. He came to me asking if I could tell him where to find the Takhi.” Mr. Tuul looked up with sorrowful eyes. “I did not tell him at first, but he said he was from National Geographic; he said he had come to photograph the herd, for the Smithsonian, he had a camera around his neck…” Mr. Tuul grew silent. He squeezed his eyes closed.
“Did you take the man to see the horses?”
Silence fell for a moment and the only sound was the clicking of the wall fan, its tired motor barely driving the rotation of the rusted metal blades. Mr. Tuul pushed back against the table and looked up toward the exposed beams of the roof. “I took him to see Sarnai.” He hung his head, leaned forward, and slumped down into his chair.
“What is this… Sarnai?” asked the Senior General.
“Sarnai is the foal born to the head mare of the Takhi herd. She is the first foal, the first to be born in our land. We named her Sarnai, which means rose in our language. So, when this man came, I was proud. I was proud to show him our desert rose. And when he first saw Sarnai, he smiled too large. His big white teeth gleamed in the sun. It was then that I was reminded of the Uylak, the werewolf, and the stories my mother told me. ”
The Senior General tapped his finger impatiently on the table. “Okay Mr. Tuul, you took the man to see the horses. So what happened that sent you here, so many miles from your village?”
The old villager cast his eyes down again to the table. “The worst part, the worst thing.” He hesitated briefly, then said, “After I showed the man Sarnai, the little foal, I bid him goodbye, and thought that was the end. Yet the next morning, I was woken by the most horrible sound, a sound straight from the gates of hell.” Mr. Tuul was visibly tortured by his memory, and his words came just above a whisper. “The sound, Sir, was the mother of Sarnai, who had come to our village to give me a message.”
“Wait a minute. Are you telling me that the horse spoke to you?”
Mr. Tuul looked up into the eyes of the Senior General. “Sir, an animal can speak. These words do not come from the mouth; they come from the eyes. These words do not go to your ears; they go to your soul.”
The Senior General raised his eyebrows. “Okay, Mr. Tuul, so what was it that this animal said to you?”
“She told me that the man, the German, had stolen Sarnai. She told me this before she died in my arms.”
“Died?”
“Yes, I believe the Uylak had gotten to her. It had to be a monster. How else can you explain an action of such inhumanity? It was the worst thing to see, Sir, this beautiful animal, dying and desperate. She had traveled miles across the sand, a trail of blood in her path. And the sound, oh, the sound was the worst part! She raised her noble head to the sky and cried for her Sarnai. It was the most mournful sound I have ever heard, it was the sound of her heart breaking. When she walked into our village, her golden coat was drenched in crimson. Yet she kept walking to find me, to tell me to find Sarnai. When she finally reached me, she lay down in my arms. She looked at me, straight to my soul, and it was then that I saw the whole thing clearly. I saw it there in her unwavering gaze. She left it to me, Sir. She told me to bring back Sarnai, to return her to the golden dunes, to return her to her home.” Large tears had pooled in the upturned corners of the villager’s eyes.
The Senior General, though typically a pragmatic man, was having difficulty maintaining his unfaltering detachment. The truth was that, a very long time before, almost beyond his memories, the he himself was a part of the village. And while it was true that he had made decisions that took him far away from the golden dunes, they still lived within him. He knew the villager spoke the truth. He felt a strong connection to this simple, honest man. He knew that, to these people, the Przewalski horses were a symbol of ancestry, of history, and of pride. They were a symbol of hope.
The Senior General had one final question to ask the old man. “Mr. Tuul, I must know, Sir, how did you arrive here just minutes after the German, when he traveled by vehicle and you by foot?”
The villager wiped at his cheeks. “It was the spirit of Sarnai’s mother, Sir. As I cradled her head in my arms, I saw her spirit leave her. It filled the sand around us with a great thunder, and transformed into a dust storm which lifted me up and sent me across the desert. It was her spirit, Sir, which brought me to you.”
 The Senior General stood abruptly and nodded to Mr. Tuul. “I will return momentarily.”
Then, he walked to the other holding room where a German man sat quietly in a huff of self-importance.
The Senior General began. “Sir, why don’t you explain to me why you wish to cross the border?”
The man replied with an impatient air. “I am with the Smithsonian Institute, and it is very important that I get the animal in my vehicle to the airport immediately. I know you are only doing your job, but it would not be wise for you to detain me here much longer.”
The Senior General barely contained a smile as he leaned over the table inches from the German’s face. “You say you are with the Smithsonian? Mr. Tuul said you were from National Geographic, a photographer.”
The German recoiled, his voice taking on a high pitched squeal, “Mr. Tuul? You mean the old villager? To be sure, Sir, you cannot possibly be listening to the ramblings of a Mongolian.”
At first the Senior General did not reply, as he was momentarily distracted by the instantaneous likening of the portly German to a large swine. To be sure, the foreigner had a pinkish tint, and his blonde hair bristled around his head quite comically. He smiled roughly. “Sir, I may not know a lot of things, but I do know, with certainty, that a representative from the Smithsonian would have documentation of his travel, and of the export of this animal. Do you have this documentation?”
The German’s eyes jumped about. He stammered. “The documentation is… is at the airport. If you would simply let me continue on my way, I will be sure to have the paperwork sent to you at once. I must remind you that detaining me is not in your best interests.” He sat back in his chair with a faltering look of confidence.
The Senior General folded his arms across his chest. “The Smithsonian has just returned the horses to Mongolia. Why, Sir, would you then be taking one away?”
The German’s porcine eyes narrowed to slits as his fists bunched on the table. He “Listen, do you have any idea how much this animal is worth to a collector? Let’s just cut to the chase here. I have money, lots of money. How much do you want to let me through?”
The Senior General hesitated. His eyes glistened, “Money, you say? Let’s see this money.”
The German produced a wad of folded bills. The official was taken aback. He looked at the large stack of bills, entranced by the wealth before him. For a moment he considered, then he took the entire lump from the man. “Well, in this case, maybe something can be arranged.” He stuffed the money deep into his pocket. “Wait here.” He left the room and relocked the door. He returned to the villager’s holding room. Mr. Tuul was still sitting miserably at the table, lines of moisture marking their paths of sadness across his face. The Senior General walked to the table and placed ten of the bills from the German’s wad in front of the old man. Then, from his other pocket, he retrieved the key to the vehicle and placed it on top of the money. “I can guarantee you that it was not an Uylak that took your Sarnai.” The Senior General paused. “Sometimes, Mr. Tuul, a man is much worse than any monster. So, while it was a dishonorable man that took your Sarnai, it will be an honorable man taking her home.” He placed his hand on the old man’s shoulder and whispered, “Take her home, Mr. Tuul, she’s been gone long enough.” Then, with a lighter heart, he left the room, leaving Mr. Tuul, the money, and the key behind him.
He sat at his large wooden desk and put his feet up, removed a cigarette from his desk drawer, lit it, and inhaled luxuriously. In the distance, the roar of a vehicle engine and tires moving across the sand could be heard.
The official continued to smoke his cigarette with a smile. After the first cigarette, he lit another. A half hour passed, and the day settled into night, before the Senior General rose and walked down the hall. He opened the door to the holding room. “Okay, Sir, it is all done. Please, follow me and you are free to go.” He led the huffy, impatient foreigner to the exit and threw open the door to the emptiness of the desert, the golden sand illuminated only by the rising moon. “Goodbye, Sir.” The Senior General smirked as he waved his hand outward to shepherd the foreigner away.
Seeing the empty parking lot, the German turned to the official with confusion as he bellowed “Where is my vehicle?…. and my animal?”
The Senior General smiled. “Sir, I am unsure of what you are referring to, but I do know that if you are implying that you had an animal, something like… let’s say a Przewalski horse, which is protected by law, and with which you had intended to cross the border, that would be a capital offense, a consequence of which would be exorbitant fines. Furthermore, the trade of exotic animals is internationally forbidden, and a person participating in this action is subject to imprisonment. And, if a person were to acquire this horse through an action such as the heinous murder of the animal’s mother, while that would be a crime against nature, it is also an act punishable, in this country, by death. Now Sir, please tell me, are you implying that you had acquired such an animal, in such a manner?”
The German glared at the Senior General, his face darkened into a red hue. He swelled up toward the officer. The official continued his passive smile, but casually placed his thumbs in his belt—which housed his semi-automatic weapon.
Seeing this action, the foreigner backed down and scowled. “How am I supposed to get to the city from out here without my vehicle?” 
Both men then appraised the wide expanse of darkness with only the sand and endless space.
“Oh, that is very simple, Sir… you… run.”
The Senior General’s eyes sparkled. His irises gleamed a fiery red as the bridge of his nose elongated and his mouth grew wide. His creature tongue licked white teeth that glistened in the extraordinarily full moonlight.

1.44 Prayer To Jesus

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Thank you for this quiet place, thank you for this place of peace, thank you for your gentleness and mercy that shall never cease though we enter God’s dark hands where mysteries give way to dread and dread then gives itself to lands where only your light saves the dead.

1.43 As The Crow Flies

JOsePizzaro

copyright 2016

As The Crow Flies

a story by

M.K. MacInnes

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Midnight had long passed. It rained hard. Visibility was limited to that which was illuminated by the bright flecks of driving rain caught in the beam of the headlights. All else was black. 
The dance was now a distant memory. Despite the conditions and a bloodstream full of whisky, Iain, the man in the brand new Hillman Imp knew intimately this single-track road from Torrin to Broadford. He had no idea he was getting sloppy, but he did concede that he felt tired. He welcomed the thought of his warm bed.
Just as his eyes got heavier, Iain became aware that he was about to pass the old haunted graveyard. The realization gave him just enough adrenalin to restore him to a state of wakefulness, for Kilchrist was a place that struck fear into the hearts of anyone that had ever been within its perimeter. Iain squinted at the timepiece he pulled from his coat pocket.
Two o’clock. Was that the time?
The witching hour. His grip on the steering wheel became tighter.
II 
Had Iain still been in a stupor, he might have had less of a fright when the creature appeared out of nowhere. What looked like a pair of shiny black wings exploded into view. They pierced the rain and headed straight for him.
Iain slammed his brakes, veering to the other side of the road to avoid lurching forward and flying through the windscreen. When his car finally screeched to a halt, he sat for what seemed to him an eternity, his fingers and forehead glued to the steering wheel. It was only when he lifted his head that he realized he had no idea which direction he was facing. Whatever that thing was, it had pulled up and over just in time.
But even though the danger appeared to be over, his fear persisted and his darkest imaginings ran wild. He could hear the voice of his mother rambling that this was the work of the Devil. At this moment he wondered if she was right. He reached for the glove compartment and pulled out the leather-bound Bible that his mother insisted he keep with him at all times. Without his spectacles, he drew comfort just from holding it. He recited the Lord’s Prayer until his heartbeat settled. Then he started to feel foolish. Putting the whole episode down to having drunk too much, he returned the Holy Book to its hiding place.
With no inclination whatsoever to get out of his car to investigate, Iain had to switch off the headlights to get his bearings. He reoriented himself in the direction of Broadford and went on his way.
When he crept into his house, his parents were asleep. He imagined himself to be as quiet as a mouse.
III
It was breakfast and an hour past sunrise. Iain’s early morning chores up on the croft had been completed and he was on his second cigarette. His mother drew a bowl of steaming porridge from the cast iron pot perched on the range and placed it in front of him. She said not a word. Her face was more drawn than usual.
His father’s fixation on Iain through rings of pipe smoke from the opposite end of the table made the ticking of the grandmother clock on the back wall seem unnaturally loud. He felt nervous. His mother muttered some inaudible excuse and headed outside with a basket of clean washing. Once certain that she was no longer in earshot, Iain’s father leaned over the table.
“Is there anything you would like to tell me?”
Iain scanned his memory. “I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Well, how do I put it? His father emitted a long puff as he tried to find the right words. “Have you done anything?”
Now Iain’s heart beat faster. Something was clearly not right.
“Done anything? I still don’t know what you mean.”
“Did you do anything you shouldn’t have? Last night to be exact.”
Murky half-faded images from the night before sought form in Iain’s head. “You’re scaring me. If you’re talking about last night, I went to the dance. I danced, had a few drinks, and came back. End of story.”
“You sure about that?”
It was hard for Iain to look his father in the eye. The only thing he could think of was that he might have taken a liberty or two with one of the wives. His look of guilt was unmistakable. “Will you please tell me what you’re talking about?”
“You really don’t know?”
“No! Now will you please tell me! I don’t want to be late for work.”
Iain’s father drew long and hard on his pipe. He was clearly going to stretch this out. “Well, Iain, you must have done something. Not long after you came back to the house, your room window rattled mightily.”
“I don’t remember that.”
“No, you wouldn’t. You were fast asleep. Well, I got up to have a look, and in the name of the wee man, if it wasn’t a great black bird trying to get in. It made one godalmighty commotion, flapping its wings and pecking at the glass.” He lowered his voice to a near whisper. “It was trying to break the window.”
Iain’s fingers trembled, his face ashen, when he stubbed out his last cigarette of the morning. “Really?”
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M.K. MacInnes is a writer from the Isle of Skye in the Scottish Highlands who now lives in the south of Edinburgh. She has enjoyed a long and muddled career path that has seen her also living in Glasgow, Cumbria, and France. It has only taken thirty-odd (yes, very odd!) years to be reunited with her lost love—writing. Her specialty is writing stories that explore the phenomenon of synchronicity and the relationship between belief, perception, and reality, and drawing on the real-life experiences of herself and others. As such, her penchant is to blur the lines between memoir and fiction. Her first short story collection, Close Call: Short and Bittersweet is currently available on Amazon.

1.42 The Fall of General Took

QQpZgqR

copyright 2016

The Fall of General Took

a story by

Jacques Denault

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To Whom It May Concern: 
Ukit Took, my grandfather, was a spry man of seventeen when his death began. I’ve spent much of my life thus far studying the bizarre circumstances surrounding his peculiar death. From the time he was a boy, he planned to join the militia with grandiose ideas of becoming a general. After all, there were many peoples who wished for Tulum’sayil to fall, such as the fair-skinned brutes to the north who wielded axes of immense size and scope. These Barbanos warriors howled in intense blood-rage on the battlefield, but the Tulum’sayilian soldiers held strong. And to the East were the rich armies of Achaemia, whose soldiers strode into battle atop golden-armored beasts.
Ukit’s village was a two-week long journey from Tikalaco, the capital, where he would join the military. The first leg of his trip was to be through the Ebon Forest, where the trees bore bark black as onyx, with leaves like coal. Rumors of creatures and unknown plagues swirled about the forest, but that was Ukit’s only way to go. With a burlap sack filled with simple supplies slung over his shoulder, he set off on his way.
Ukit would later tell tales of his time spent in those woods. At night he heard strange cries coming from the shadows of the trees, and stranger howls from off in the darkness. During the day, the forest kept out so much light that he was hardly able to tell the time, and sadly his journey was much slower than he had hoped. After eight days of trudging through slimy mud and moss-encrusted sticks, he came across a large circular clearing. In the center stood a flat-roofed building that seemed to rise eerily from the ground. Once he stepped foot within the clearing, he found that the noise of the wilds dissipated, as if he had left the woods miles behind him. He approached the house with caution, slightly fearful of the type of man who would choose to spend his days holed up in a forest with miles of trees around each side. He went inside, calling out to see if anyone was there, but he heard no reply. As he entered, he saw rows of jars that lined the many shelves jutting off the walls. A few housed odd colored liquids and others strange objects, only some of which he could identify. I’ve learned from my father that Ukit nearly never wrote, and yet he would scribble about that strange house in the woods until the day he died. I was left some of his notes, including a rather detailed map regarding the clearing and the surrounding forest.
Toward the back of the house was hidden a shadowed stairway. Entranced by the mystery of the strange house in the woods, Ukit decided to venture down them. As he descended the rickety wooden stairs, he began to hear whispers. They were in a strange foreign language that he could not recognize, one that he later would claim that he had never heard. With each step the whispers grew louder, until he was at the bottom of the stairs, at which point they grew to be tormented screams. Looking around, he saw that the room was entirely barren; that there were no people screaming. Instead, there stood only one object in sight—a grotesque stone sculpture of some creature unbeknownst to him. The thing was small, about the size of a man’s foot. He assumed that it must be a deity, worshipped by whomsoever lived in that house. He picked up the mysterious figure, and as soon as his skin touched the cold stone, the screams stopped. Somehow he knew by simply holding the idol that it would grant him protection and luck in his travels. Scrawled among his papers I find many mentions of the moment he held the idol for the first time. In each of his accounts, he alludes to some sort of agreement he made at that moment, though he never says what that entailed.
Eight years passed since the day that the young Ukit found the strange idol while lost in the Ebon Forest. In that time he had gone on to fly through the ranks of the military, becoming the youngest, and one of the greatest generals, that Tulum’Sayil had ever seen. One night, after the decisive battle of Napites, deep within Achaemian territory, Ukit went missing. Soldiers reported seeing him captured by a group of enemy spearmen, before being taken away. For three weeks Ukit was presumed dead. However, after those three weeks he was found standing outside the gates of Tikalaco, malnourished and wounded, but alive. When his comrades asked how he had survived, he refused to speak. He instead gazed only at the stone figure which he always kept at his side.
From that day forward Ukit wrote even less than he had prior. A number of accounts say that he spoke less often from then on as well. He supposedly only opened his mouth to say quick mutterings, most of which were too faint for those around him to hear. His comrades noticed that in the time after his disappearance he had for some reason acquired a nervous tick of checking over his shoulder with a fearful look in his eyes.
A full year after the incident, he was a changed man. His eyes had grown weary and frightful, constantly darting about, and his face seemed to belong to a frail elder instead of a mighty general. Despite that, he was still one of the strongest soldiers and generals in the army, and he still marched into each battle with the strength of ten men.
His death came in a decisive battle against his old enemies the Achaemians. It had been raining for five days, so water drenched the battlefield. Their fighting had been nonstop for over a week. They fought for control of the banks of the Kuriseumak River. Each side had suffered tremendous casualties, yet neither would claim defeat. The river’s waters had turned red from the streams of blood flowing into it, so much so that it threatened to overflow its banks. Ukit stood just west of the battlefield on a small hill.
The rest of the story I have only been able to gather from the accounts of Ukit’s soldiers. (The few who are still alive that remembered him have grown to be old and feeble after all this time.) He held the stone idol in his hands, staring into it, when he suddenly collapsed to his knees. He covered his ears and closed his eyes, as if he could hear shouting and screaming more disturbing than the cries of soldiers. Some others even claim to have heard the agonizing shrieks that came from the figure, some saying it drove them to the brink of madness.
Ukit stayed there, motionless on his knees as an arrow shot from an Achaemian bow ended the inexplicable luck of the famous general. When the Achaemians claimed victory, and the Tulum’Sayilians retreated, the first body to be buried was that of Ukit. The man who first grabbed his body said that they could not see the idol, which he had been so fond of, anywhere on his person. Instead they found a note, scribbled on a tattered piece of paper, folded a hundred ways. It read,
A pact so made in shadows,
sealed through blood and stone.
All things come at a price,
even kings must worship the throne.
I leave this letter here in the hopes that it is found, and its warning heeded; for I have researched the subject since I was a young boy, being told stories of my grandfather. I’ve grown to understand what that detestable thing may be, and I pray that no other soul learns of the idol’s true identity. I know that it will be there, and as I write, it should take me just under two weeks to get to the house in the clearing, and find the damned thing. My hope is that I destroy it. However, if I am not seen in one month’s time, it means that I have failed, and the figure still sits in the house in the forest. I pray that I am the last to see the twisted visage of such a god.
-Kabahl Took
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Jacques Denault is a student at Merrimack College. He has previously been published at RedFez Magazine, and works as the head editor for the Merrimack Review.

1.41 The Song of Harpokrates

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copyright 2016

The Song Of Harpokrates

a story by

Harley Lethalm

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At the height of a great precipice, laboring silently and strongly against the possessive black holds of Orion, sat and loomed an Old Man of impossible age; and the Old Man fathered no single progeny of sound, but preferred to recall the calm of the limitless, eon-bound sky with all its ghosts and infinities – the temperance of the world below burned as though fed by meals of coal and ember, for all the people of the land had long forgotten the recipes of whisper and fellowship.
It became that turmoil spoiled the tongues and appetites of the community, and where penitence reigned formerly as magistrate to the illness of deed, behaviors knavish and rude triumphed and were called as virtuous by the ruling hands.
In darkness men would struggle themselves unto the figures of women, and in light they were made to laugh at their actions and revel interminably. And the Old Man took in the scope of these cruelties and issued not a sigh or corrective word.                                                                                            
For centuries the Old Man posted at the lip of the powerful precipice, observing carefully the dreadful injuries committed by and unto man, until it were that a visitor privileged him with an invitation to speak; and the Old Man, conscience bloated and fat with all things sad and impolite, offered silence to the interviewer.
“Why is it you do not speak, frail old man?” questioned the interviewer of the world below. “Is it perhaps you prefer the malaise of irresponsibility to the busyness and toil of proper and right citizenship?”
The Old Man acknowledged these words but said nothing.
“Your insolence is magnificent, yet I shouldn’t be too soon in disarming you of that such childishness; you will either produce a specimen of discourse, or, that not being so, the famine of your words will doubtless introduce me to enact violence.”
The Old Man drew his lips in a muted frown as the flesh of the moon slipped over black space, blistering the sky with a pellucid dignity.
“Strange old man with your dead voice – are not too your thoughts and superstitions of this new world but stores of enmities and confusions, outmoded like the nebulae your very eyes sip on, or the constellations, hobby-things of Hipparchus, that spin the stuff of your dreams?”
Repairing to custom, the Old Man conceded not to issue a sound– the interviewer, upon collecting no reaction, stamped his foot to the padded earth and matured his voice to stertorous deeps.
“What phase of your ambition impels you to laughter, to the expression of simple joy? Are you tolerably immune to the vices of emotion, or the swollen emissaries of vengeance, that Pharoah-figure of vitriol – but, or could it possibly be, have you lent yourself to gross senility?”
The Old Man remained in silence.
“I won’t any longer inveigh against your impudence; you have in your contempt demonstrated all divorces from learned community; obsolete fool! You who choose to parry my questions and demean the humility of discourse; you who threaten to preserve the nostalgia of men!”
Here the interviewer accosted the Old Man and sent him over the scaffolding of the precipice to the vast below; and on that way the Old Man shrieked and protracted agonizing sounds, and the moonlight stiffened and traced the descent, and the stars ruptured and fired limbs of harsh noise into the ether as the sick vomiting of Polaris pealed through the void.
And there, on the lip of that great, undisturbed precipice, the gross figure of a man kept vigil under the inky tenements of Orion, uttering no sound, but learning the melodies of the dust and the vespers of the wind – and time passed, and he grew old; and the world below waxed on.
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Harley Lethalm is an autodidact who cut his teeth on Lovecraft, Poe, Aickman, and other Gothic writers before graduating to Sartre and Hemingway, all of this literature giving him a basis for his present admiration for Bukowski, Ginsberg, and similar Beat Poets as well as the Psalms, Isaiah, and other Biblical writings. A recent endeavor, now that his first novel has been slated by City Lights, is to bring the quarter-century-old writings of former Hollywood poet Scáth Beorh to light via the manuscript ‘Little Whores.’

Harley Loethalm

1.40 Suzie Wants To Know The Truth

Sam-Mirror-Scene-Cinemagraph

copyright 2016

Suzie Wants To Know The Truth

 

a story by

Stefani Christova

 
Soap bubbles foam around Suzie’s hands as she washes the cup, the small plate and the big plate from her dinner last night. Some of the bubbles take off and drift around her in the sun-warmed air, reflecting the world outside and multiplying the kitchen cabinets, the chairs, the table with the orange globe above it, and the phone on the wall. The phone on the wall. Suzie’s heart skips. They should call her today, tomorrow at the latest.
The phone makes a short, whirring sound as if it is about to ring, and trying not to make noise with the dishes, Suzie waits to see if it will. When it doesn’t, she unplugs the sink and reaches for the towel on the stove door. The towel takes the bubbles away from her hands, and color and sparkle turn into wet spots on the worn-out material.  
Suzie smiles an inward smile. What amuses her, even in the midst of self-pity and dread, is the irony of it. Is her wish for escape going to be granted finally, ten years later, when completely forgotten, the bitter taste left in her mouth from the sleeping pills gone, and when all she is looking forward to is the summer vacation and her painting class.
Suzie wants to be brave. She has been brave for three days already. Can she do it for a bit longer? For as long as it takes? She doubts it. The waiting is becoming impossible to bear, the wading through the fog of her days harder and harder. She may need to talk to her sister. She starts in the direction of the phone, but it looks so bloated with bad news that she cannot make herself touch it. She decides to walk; her sister lives only a few blocks away.
Suzie goes to the entry closet and rummages through her shoes. The shelf has given way, and all the shoes are piled on the bottom. She untangles one of her favorite sandals and looks in the pile for its pair, in the meantime stepping into the shoe she has just taken out. Her foot slips out to the side, and Suzie almost loses her balance. She picks the shoe up and looks at it. The upper part of the sandal, woven from straw-like material, has been cut through with what seems like a sharp knife. The cut has been made on the outer side, close to the sole. Suzie turns the sandal in her hands, wondering how this could have happened, then she drops it aside and pulls out a pair of rubber flip-flops, bright blue and easy to find in the pile. Each of them has its straps cut off the same way. She searches the pile and looks at shoe after shoe that is mutilated, damaged, impossible to wear.
“Father!” she cries, and her father opens the living-room door as if he has been waiting for her call, the paper in one of his hands, his eyes big and moist behind his reading glasses. “Has anyone been here? Eileen maybe? With the kids?”
He takes his glasses off to take a better look at her as she sits on the floor surrounded by her useless shoes, her face distraught to a degree he doesn’t seem to understand but doesn’t question. “I have nothing to wear. What am I going to do?” Suzie whines, and she knows she is whining but cannot help it.
Her father goes back to his room without saying a word and closes the door behind him. He comes back in a minute holding a hundred-dollar bill, which he gives to her. Then, he is gone again to the safety of his armchair.
Pressure builds up behind Suzie’s eyelids. She rubs her temples until it hurts. “How about a bit of self-control?” she asks herself. “How about you leave Eileen out of this?” After a few minutes, she feels ready and stands up. 
She drives, still barefooted, to the mall and buys a pair of slip-ons. The shoes are a pearl-rose color that will go well with the new dress she is going to wear tonight for the end of the school year dance, but not so well with the summer dress she has on. Then, she drives to the campus—she has things to do there and she wants to have lunch in the cafeteria. She likes the cream pies they have and the spicy pockets with feta cheese.
It is already half-past one, but there is a long queue, students, professors, even parents, lined up for a last meal before the summer takes them away to their small towns, suburbia, second homes, Paris, the mountains, wherever. Suzie takes a tray and waits her turn. No one comes after her, she is the last one in the queue. The food they have today is better than usual, she can see that when she looks at the other people’s trays. Arugula sandwiches, stuffed peppers, crème brulée. When her turn comes, only some of the stuffed peppers are left, and there are no more clean plates at the line. The three women behind the counter turn their backs on her and start cleaning and tidying the kitchen. She waits for them to notice her, but they don’t. “Hello, hi there…no more clean plates.” “What? Ah, we just loaded the dishwashers, there isn’t a single plate left. Sorry.” “What about the crème brulée?” “What about it? It’s gone.” “But I see some over there.” Suzie points at the inside shelves where the crème brulée crinkles its sugary, golden-yellow crust in ovenproof, individual bowls. One of the women comes to the window and closes it in front of her face, without further explanation. Suzie lifts her hand halfway to the window, and stays like that, giddy with confusion, not knocking, her hand in the air, a little tic pulling the corner of her upper lip.
The tower clock downtown chimes two times. The sound is clear and sharp like a thorn, and it startles Suzie into motion. She wanders out still holding the tray until she reaches the first benches and leaves it there.
The campus is like a ghost town. No people, no moving cars, only a few parked in the vast, empty parking lots. Abandoned bicycles line the buildings’ entries, or are chained to lampposts and trees. It is like that every summer. The students depart in haste and leave their bicycles behind. On the first day of school, the unclaimed ones will be offered in an auction. Suzie glances wistfully at a bright red, foldable bicycle, and goes through her to-do list where two items wait to be crossed out. She returns the key for the biology lab in the administration office, leaves a memo for her adviser on the door of his office, and reads the messages on the board. It’s still two-thirty. She goes to the library, where she picks a Spanish magazine to read, checking in the dictionary every word she is not familiar with. She does that until it’s time to go home and get ready for tonight.
Suzie barely knows the boy who will take her to the dance. He has beautiful hands, long, with delicate fingers like the hands of a piano player. She will ask him if he plays an instrument if she goes out with him a second time. He shows up at her house with a bottle of inexpensive champagne he says she doesn’t need to open now—it’s a present for her. She insists, however, and they drink it from glasses that had been too long in the cupboard and give the champagne a faint dusty flavor. He drinks very little, he will be driving, so she finishes her glass, then his, and pours the rest in her water bottle to take along. The plastic bottle expands from the carbonation, and by the time they reach the campus, is inflated like a balloon. The champagne fizzes and spills out when Suzie opens it, and she drinks quickly, laughing and shaking the excess from her chin and her dress.
Inside, she dances with the boy, with other boys, with two of her professors, and with her friend, Amy, who has had a crush on her since their junior year. The boy wants to take her home around eleven, but she refuses, she wants to dance until midnight. He says he is glad she is having such a good time. When he drops her off, he doesn’t want to come in, he will call her tomorrow. Not tomorrow, she says, tomorrow is not good, the end of the week should be better.  
The next morning, Suzie wakes up on a soft, feathery cloud, surrounded by apple blossoms and blazing blue sky. The peaceful feeling she brought out of her sleep is still with her, a drowsy happiness that could only be experienced at the brim of awakening. She accepts what she sees without questioning it. The apple blossoms seem frozen in space, not a petal moves or trembles, and their stillness gives the impression of a deeper but forged third dimension like in a holograph. There is a cluster of blossoms no more than six inches away from Suzie’s eyes, and she examines them closely. The ones that are fully open are pure white, the buds have a tint of pink on the edges. She wants to smell them, even though the fragrance is all around her, she has felt it seeping into her dreams all night. She reaches to bring the twig closer and the shift of weight upsets her cloud. Fully awake now, she moves back to firmer ground.
She is on the apple tree that grows behind their townhouse. Someone had built a platform between the branches for the kids to play on. Last night, she brought her down comforter here and fell asleep watching the stars. Her dress is probably all wrinkled now. Suzie wishes she were still sleeping among the flowering branches, breathing the sweet smell and believing she was in heaven. She closes her eyes and tries to make herself comfortable again, but moves the wrong way and almost rolls off the platform. A wonder she has made it through the night without falling down.
At least her shoes must be safe here. No one could have climbed the tree without waking her. She sits up carefully and searches the folds of the comforter for her shoes. Her heart sinks as she pulls them out one by one. They have been cut the same way as her other shoes. Sharp, clean cuts close to the soles. She falls back into her makeshift bed, hugs the shoes close to her chest, and turns on her side, curling around them. Now the view through the branches is no longer the bright blue sky, but the thinly grassed open space behind their building. 
The trees on the other side look peculiar. They have never been that close or that dense or that old and gnarled. Now they are dark and looming, with shaggy curtains of moss draping their limbs. The artificial pond in front of them has turned into a bog. The bog, in the shadows of the trees, is so overgrown that it takes Suzie a moment to notice the two old women sitting in the murky water. For some reason they have taken their clothes off. The skin on their forearms is loose and their empty breasts hang to their waists. Their features are strange. One of them is bold and her head reminds Suzie of a straw mushroom with its shape and color, and with the gray peelings on the sides. The other one has the pasty skin of someone dredged out of the deep. The first woman is seated deeper in the water, and the second one is behind her standing or sitting on higher ground so they seem stacked behind each other like cards from some obscure tarot deck.
Suzie moves aside the branches and looks at the women. She hopes they will go away. They look back, unblinking and expressionless.
“What is happening to me?” Suzie cries so they can hear her in the distance. “Who is depriving me of shoes to wear, of food to eat? Tell me.”
The women gain an air of satisfaction about them as if they got something long waited for. “She wants to know the truth. She wants to know the truth,” they chant, their voices old and cracking and full of mockery. The one behind pulls something from the water and starts smacking it against the tree on their left in time with the chanting. Suzie can see what has been brought out of the water with clarity and in the finest of details. It is a skinless fish. The blood vessels on its body are bright red against the gray of its flesh. The mouth with sharp, pointed teeth is opening and closing. The big, frenzied eye makes rounds in its socket. The bark of the tree is deeply cut and ragged, and the fish makes a loud slapping sound when it is brought against it.
Suzie gags and starts to cry. Not letting go of her pretty, ruined shoes, she slides down the trunk of the apple tree. Just in time she notices Mrs. Pelham, the lady that takes care of the grounds, who is sweeping the pavement and the stairs on the side of the building.
“Good morning, Suzie,” Mrs. Pelham calls out. “Did you sleep in the tree house? Nice dress you have. Put your shoes on, you’ll catch a cold like that.”
“Yes, Mrs. Pelham. I will. Good morning to you, too.”
Finally, Suzie is around the corner. Loud sobs shake her whole body. She needs to talk to her sister. She will do it right now. She runs past the first and the second entryways, then past the third one where she lives with her father, and where the phone will ring any moment now. The townhouses with their columned porches and flowerpots with geraniums and pansies waver in front of her eyes as if the whole street has gone underwater and she is watching it from a submarine window.
Suzie cannot stop crying. The air is becoming salty and sparse. Soon there won’t be enough to breathe.

1.39 Skins

tumblr_nbkds01B2a1tntn9qo1_500copyright 2016
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Skins

a story by

Tempest Brew

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I took her to the woods where I took them all. I remember my sweet daddy bringing home animals and teaching me to skin them. I even collected their skulls a while.
“We worried about you when you were little,” my daddy’s sister told me.
I waved it off. Nothing to worry about here.
Then I met my sweet Angela. Love and love and deep love, if you know what I mean, then she broke it off.
So now Angela and I are going to see my skin collection. And that’s where she’ll stay until I decide to bring her home.
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Tempest Brew used to study cosmetology until she realized it was not the same as cosmology.

1.38 Mr. Mason Is Dead

4toRvBx

copyright 2016
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Mr. Mason Is Dead

a story by

J. Jordan Stivers

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Frederick Mason is dead. His next-door neighbor Mrs. Potter reported a smell to the landlord who then opened Mr. Mason’s apartment to find the old man dead. The coroner said Mr. Mason had been gone for a week, slumped over on his ratty couch. No one had been surprised not to see him outside. In fact, they were happy not to. Mr. Mason was not a pleasant man. He was the sort of old man who glared at a friendly hello. He subsisted on TV dinners. He had no pets. There were no next-of-kin, no friends to contact. There were no pictures around the apartment, no evidence of a lost life. He was buried in a pauper’s grave, unmarked by the City. Even the gravedigger barely noticed Mr. Mason as he buried him without thought. 
Mr. Mason’s apartment was a health hazard. Stacks of newspapers lay on nearly every surface, highly piled in precarious chronologies. Old news and magazine clippings lined the walls, Mr. Mason’s own makeshift decor. The clippings covered the windows so he could not see out and only streaked, sepia-toned light could filter in. Many of the clippings had faded to barely legible print. A couple of pieces had Mr. Mason’s name on them, many discussed the City itself. The cleaners despised the papers for making their job harder as they took their razors to the walls and windows. If they or anyone else had bothered to read, they would have realized Mr. Mason had once been Somebody.
You see, Mr. Mason built this city. It was the most modern of places, the cleanest of municipalities, a pharos of progress and prosperity. It shone with steel and glass, and hummed with life. It sparkled radiant, a true beacon on a hill. His city was a grand clockwork of society, a million little pieces that functioned in harmony. It was the pinnacle of design and construction, and Mr. Mason was its architect. He saw lines no one had ever dreamed of. He made buildings that reached the sky, that made men conjure dreams of reaching beyond the stars. He made her beautiful, his city. He poured his life into her, breathed it into her to make her as alive as any person he knew. 
But Mr. Mason had lived too long, so long that he saw his beloved treasure become worthless trash. Men came after him, insisting on building objects that cluttered his city, choked her with filth. With time, they tore down Mr. Mason’s ingenious designs to make way for garish supermarkets and drab strip malls. They widened roads for superhighways that cut slices across the City’s heart like gaping wounds. They replaced parks and ponds with repetitive subdivisions named after parks and ponds. 
For a while, Mr. Mason fought them. He worked on preservation committees and led heritage societies. He spoke at rich charity events full of overstuffed, over-liquored businessmen who cared for nothing but the bottom line and their own conveniences. He picketed the tearing down of theaters and galleries. He argued at City Hall for open spaces, for historic landmarks, for preserving the unique voice of his city. But it was all for nothing. They continued to tear down and build atop his lovely city’s mutilated corpse, her soul deadened beneath it all.
Mr. Mason lived too long and he knew it. So he stayed in his city as they both slowly died, as they both became increasingly decrepit and dank and forgotten. He had no desire to see her and yet he could not leave her. He no longer recognized himself or her when his time came, the tattered shells they had become. And when Frederick Mason breathed his last, so died the last man who believed the City was alive. And therefore she ceased to be so.
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A Kentucky farm country native, J. Jordan Stivers currently lives in California. She likes to run, cook, play video games, and read about Russian history. A granddaughter of sheep farmers, she also occasionally knits but it rarely turns out wearable.

1.37 Lady Cassandra Grey

Cinemagraphs-moving-pictures-12copyright 2015
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Lady Cassandra Grey

a story by

Hiromi Yoshida

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Quid Pro Quo
Lady of a million snowy linens, gold plate, and jeweled goblets: greed for gold turned your fair countenance green; white your flowing hair of tarnished gold beneath your towering headdress; blue your pubic purse. Tell me, what did you find in that forbidden room in yonder eastern gallery of damask ottomans, curiously wrought cabinets, richly embroidered antimacassars, and baroquely gilded mirrors?
(Nothing, my Lord. Nothing at all.)
Lady Cassandra Grey, where is your husband?
(Why, he has gone hunting for the day. Why dost thou ask?)
Where is the key to the forbidden room?
(Anne, sister Anne, sister Anne. Do you see anyone coming?)
She sits all day atop her castellated tower watching dust settle upon empty roads. The moon drips blood through haggard trees.
(Sister Anne, sister Anne, signal haste to our brothers. Why aren’t our brothers coming? Wherefore thy silence, Sister Anne?)
She combs her dirty hag hair with a gold gap-toothed comb, and rubs a little gold key between bony fingers moaning, “Sister Anne, Sister Anne, O morning star of highest heaven.”
Lady Grey, did you know that your sister is now a madly mirthful strumpet? She will not hearken to your useless genuflections, and your brothers will never come, for their bones are crumbling in the family vault with the excrement of the years.
Mad mother of a million miscarried days and stillborn Sabbath nights, she sees the blood crawl over marbled floors—hears the injunction to remove her silken robes, unfasten her baroque girdle, and take her place among the others. She hears the serial bastard’s endless incantation:
“Wipe, wipe—thy tears of remorse are all in vain.”  Her hair is a bunch of dirty gold in his angry fist. “Strike, strike the final hour. Commend thy soul to God. Anne will watch her sister die as the cock crows its zenith hour.”
Blind silver blur and the flying hooves of a million horses and roaring cataracts of Eustachian blood culminate in a swooning apocalypse of sound and fiery stars.
(Sister Anne, Sister Anne…)
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Post Mortem Inquest
Bailiff: How died the very first Lady Bluebeard?
Coroner: She died at the cruel hand of her wrathful Lord.
Bailiff: What provoked the ire of her unnaturally cruel Lord?
Coroner: Excess spleen, unmanly grief, and jealous attachment.
Bailiff: Duly recorded for our Magistrate, who will consider all these things.

1.36 Train In The Mist

3i5lrv9

copyright 2015

Train In The Mist

a story by

Emma Doughty

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The train station was misty and cold. That’s what happens when you finish work three hours late but with deadlines to meet. What else could she do? She had just landed her dream job. Despite her boss being a total creep, she knew that with putting in long hours and hard work she could really make something of herself. Even if that did mean putting up with the boss’s sour breath on her neck when he came into her office with the agenda of the day. Every morning she would sit on the corner of her bed and chant ‘Ashley, you will never nurture a baby. Your career is your baby.’ She took a magazine out of her bag and sat on the rusty metal bench. The man next to her twitched nervously as he pulled down his woolly cap. He tilted his head and gave Ashley a weak smile. She couldn’t help but feel sorry for him. He looks so sad, she thought, and then she noticed the can of special brew that was resting in between his knees.
He coughed. ‘Keeps me warm.’
‘Don’t blame you. It’s freezing tonight.’ Ashley wondered if he even had a home? But then again, he was well-dressed—he just looked a bit troubled. He edged closer. Their legs almost brushed.
‘You work in Harpers. You were wearing that skirt on Tuesday.’
Ashley blushed at the thought that he might know she had worn it every day since Tuesday. Thank God it was Friday. She could put it in the wash to be ready for Monday. Hearing her train in the distance, she got up and straightened her clothes.
The train was packed. Only two seats opposite each other were free. Good, thought Ashley. I will be able to put my feet up. She kicked her shoes off to rest her feet on the seat, but the man from the station plonked himself down.
He offered his hand. ‘The names Peter.’
‘Ashley.’
The way Peter was looking at her made her feel threatened.
Peter licked his lips. ‘The coat you wore on Wednesday really brought out the colour blue in your eyes.’
Ashley was thankful that she was getting off at the next stop. Now Peter really was starting to creep her out. ‘Well this is my stop.’ She raced off the train, taking the steps two at a time down to the street. Peter was hot on her heels. Ashley started to march the two minute walk home. She searched in her coat pocket for the front door key, but no, there was only the back door key. She raced down the poorly-lit lane, almost tripping over a fallen bin. She smelled stale beer. Then an arm wrapped around her chest. All she could see was black mist before she took her final breath.
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Emma Doughty has had a love of writing since the age of ten years. Twenty years on, the passion to write keeps growing. At the age of fourteen, she wrote her first poem titled ‘From Black to Blue.’ She has written many poems inspired by her boyfriend Ben. Emma believes that the people she has met, whether good or bad, will make great fiction characters. She was born with mild cerebral palsy.

1.35 Penitence

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Penitence

an ancient Mesopotamian folktale

circa 2000 BCE

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There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Penitence; and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared Adonai, and turned away from evil. There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, and five hundred she-asses, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east. His sons used to go and hold a feast in the house of each on his day; and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. And when the days of the feast had run their course, Penitence would send and sanctify them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all; for Penitence said, “It may be that my sons have sinned, and cursed Adonai in their hearts.” Thus Penitence did continually.
Now there was a day when the sons of Adonai came to present themselves before him, and Satan also came among them.
Adonai said to Satan, “Whence have you come?”
Satan answered Adonai, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.”
And Adonai said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Penitence, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears Adonai and turns away from evil?”
Then Satan answered Adonai, “Does Penitence fear Adonai for nought? Hast thou not put a hedge about him and his house and all that he has, on every side? Thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But put forth thy hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse thee to thy face.”
And Adonai said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power; only upon himself do not put forth your hand.”
So Satan went forth from the presence of Adonai.
Now there was a day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house; and there came a messenger to Penitence, and said, “The oxen were plowing and the asses feeding beside them; and the Sabeans fell upon them and took them, and slew the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you.”
While he was yet speaking, there came another, and said, “The fire of Adonai fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; and I alone have escaped to tell you.”
While he was yet speaking, there came another, and said, “The Chaldeans formed three companies, and made a raid upon the camels and took them, and slew the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you.”
While he was yet speaking, there came another, and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house; and behold, a great wind came across the wilderness, and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young people, and they are dead; and I alone have escaped to tell you.”
Then Penitence arose, and ripped his robe, and shaved his head, and fell upon the ground, and worshiped. And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; Adonai gave, and Adonai has taken away; blessed be the name of Adonai.”
In all this Penitence did not sin or charge Adonai with wrong.
Again there was a day when the sons of Adonai came to present themselves before him, and Satan also came among them to present himself before Adonai.
And Adonai said to Satan, “Whence have you come?”
Satan answered Adonai, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.”
And Adonai said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Penitence, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears Adonai and turns away from evil? He still holds fast his integrity, although you moved me against him, to destroy him without cause.”
Then Satan answered Adonai, “Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life. But put forth thy hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse thee to thy face.”
And Adonai said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your power; only spare his life.”
So Satan went forth from the presence of Adonai, and afflicted Penitence with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. And he took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.
Then his wife said to him, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse Adonai, and die.”
But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good at the hand of Adonai, and shall we not receive evil?” In all this Penitence did not sin with his lips.
Now when Penitence’s three friends heard of all this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place, Eli′phaz the Te′manite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Na′amathite. They made an appointment together to come to condole with him and comfort him. And when they saw him from afar, they did not recognize him; and they raised their voices and wept; and they rent their robes and sprinkled dust upon their heads toward heaven. And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.

1.34 The Man Who Fed Pigeons

glass buildingscopyright 2015
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The Man Who Fed Pigeons

a story by

Zach Walchuk

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There was a man on the bridge throwing pieces of bread, which meant pigeon wings and pigeon beaks and pigeon droppings. His eyes smiled and his flabby arms danced as he littered the sky with crumbs.
“Could you stop that?” I said. I squeezed by on the edge of the sidewalk.
“Got to keep ‘em friendly,” he replied.
A dump truck grumbled past. I threw my hands in front of my face amidst the cooing and beating wings.
I glared at the man. “Why, exactly?”
He breathed at me­—heavy, odorous, and rapid. He smacked his lips with moist satisfaction. When he opened his mouth there was a gaping, toothless hole.
“They’re coming down from the mountains, and they don’t like birds,” he said, leaning on the railing. He dug his long nails into a bun, tearing it in two.
“Ah yes, that makes sense,” I said, and continued to walk.
“Hey!” the man shouted. I looked back at him. He tilted his head in the direction of the water. “Stay clear of that mess, will ya? Awfully dangerous.”
White waves of a rushing river passed beneath the bridge. For weeks it had been rising and falling, leaving an inch of sand each time it dropped back. Sand on the grass, sand on the sidewalk, sand on the steps. In many places the sidewalk had fallen into the water, the bank underneath eaten away.
Julie was waiting, so I hurried on. I took the path along the river to an old brick building. A raindrop landed on my nose as I reached the door.
When I reached the fourth floor, I saw Julie at our usual table, close to the windows and overlooking the river. Outside, the rain was picking up.
“You’re late,” said Julie.
“You’re not surprised,” I said. I sat down, keeping my eyes fixed out the window.
Julie frowned. “What are you looking at?”
“He’s still out there. He’s going to get soaked.” I pointed a finger towards the man on the bridge, surrounded by his pigeons. He showed no signs of discomfort as the rain came down harder. The birds were less tolerant; one by one they found shelter under the bridge. “He told me to be stay away from the river.” I looked at Julie.
She sucked on her drink. “The bird man?” she asked as she looked out the window again.
“Yeah, the bird man.” Then I told her what had happened on the bridge.
Julie lifted her glass off the table and picked at the ice cubes with her straw. “He’s right about the river. Don’t know about the pigeons.”
“It’s moving pretty fast now.”
 “Faster than you think. It can suck you under before you know what’s happening. A girl was pulled under this morning. They’ve been looking for her all day.”
“That’s terrifying.”
Julie shrugged and set her glass down on the table. “The world’s a scary place if you insist on being stupid.”
“I’m sure it was an accident, Julie.”
“I’m sure it was too, like those kids who accidentally shoot themselves.” She glared at the tablecloth. “Some parents are criminally thoughtless.”
A waiter stopped by our table. “Anything to drink?”
I looked at Julie and she nodded. “We’ll both have one of these.” I pointed at Julie’s glass.
“And are we eating tonight, sir?”
I looked at Julie again. She shook her head. “Just some chips,” I said.
As I handed my menu to the waiter, I glanced out the window. The water rose with the pouring rain. Bobbing on the surface was something large that moved with the liquid comfort of a fish. It floated under the sidewalk and slipped into a hole.
“Still looking at the bird man?” asked Julie.
I jumped. “No, I thought I saw something in the river.” I looked at the bridge—the man and his pigeons were gone. The only movement came from the falling rain and the rushing river.
“Probably did. There’s all sorts of garbage that gets caught up in this. Makes me sick when the water goes back down.”
We watched the river. Our drinks came, twice, and the minutes went by, not stopping to pay attention to our conversation. In half an hour the rain stopped. The last edges of yellow sunlight worked their way down the glass buildings across the river.
“That was quick,” I said.
“Usually is,” said Julie. “Water’s gone up three feet though.”
There was a slow moving pool where the river had been. It covered the benches and the sidewalks. A few small trees were in water up to their lower branches.
“It should clear out soon,” I said, “and speaking of, I’ve got to get going.”
“Last to show up, first to leave. You really do care about me, don’t you?” said Julie as she chewed on her straw.
“Of course I do. You’re my favorite. I don’t even talk to anyone else.” I pulled a twenty from my wallet and put it on the table. I walked to the elevator. When I stepped outside I was assaulted by the smells of water. The clean smell of rain gave strength to the tang of the river. I glanced down the sidewalk and was happy to see the river falling back to its bed. Plastic bags and bottles drifted and rolled as I started to walk. The fading twilight left me feeling transcendent. I looked at the towers of the city and felt they would fit in the palm of my hand. Even the mountains in the distance were pocket sized. I made eager progress and quickly found myself where the sidewalk dipped low under another bridge. The little remaining light didn’t fall here. I took small, careful steps forward. My foot splashed into an inch or two of water. The river was still retreating. Another cautious step, and my toe hit something heavy and soft. I reached down and felt cold skin. Quickly, I searched for pulse and breath, but found neither. “Oh god,” I said to no one.
I grabbed the body and pulled it from under the bridge. In the faint light I saw a young girl, maybe five years old. She was wrapped in river weeds. Long scratches covered her arms and legs, but there was no blood.
“I told ya it was dangerous,” said a voice behind me.
I spun around and saw a towering man. The sun was down, the world had grown, and everything was two sizes too big. I couldn’t see a face in the dark, but I recognized the smell.
“What did you do to her?” I said.
“I didn’t do nothing! They did it. I tried to stop ‘em. I told ya it was dangerous.”
They did it?” I shouted. “They did it?”
“Yes,” he said, backing away from me. “I tried to help.”
“You’re making it up. You killed her, and you’re making things up.” He was trying to turn around. I stepped into his face.
“I didn’t do nothing!” He pushed my chest with both hands.
I stumbled backward and landed with one foot in the river. A sharp pain shot up my heel. I tried to pull it up, but it wouldn’t move. I screamed in frustration.
The bird man looked at my foot, eyes wide with fear. “They’ve got ya! I told ya it was dangerous.”
I was furious. “You did this! And you did something to that little girl!”
“I didn’t do nothing,” he said as he started to walk away.
“Where are you going?” I yelled.
He began to run.
My foot was jerked backwards. I slammed against the sidewalk. Another sharp tug and I was pulled into the river.
The cold water crashed around my head in wave after wave. The river was moving much faster than I had thought it could. I struggled to keep my mouth above the surface as I was swept downstream. My arms grew heavy and slow. There was a great weight pulling at my foot, and it was still hurting me terribly.
I was spending less and less time above the water as the stiffness overtook my arms. When they could move no more, I sank quickly, dark water closing over my head. I looked down into the water to find the source of my pain. It was difficult to see clearly, but there was a writhing shape, sinewy and scaled. A clawed hand gripped my ankle.
I twisted and pulled, but it was no use. I was trapped, and for a moment I was still. A dozen pairs of burning eyes stared at me from holes in the riverbank. And then out came claws, out came lean shiny bodies, out came thick webbed legs.
They were here.
In the water above me I heard a splash. Diving towards me was a bird, a long neck and a sharp beak, followed by two, maybe three more. They swam quickly past me, down into the darkness. Above me there were more splashes.
Soon the water was full of wings and claws and beaks and scales. It was impossible to see anything clearly. I was buffeted and nicked, scratched and clipped. Panicking, I kicked and thrashed. Then I discovered that my leg was free.
With burning lungs and arms and legs, I rushed up. I broke the surface and gasped. I moved to the sidewalk under a barrage of diving birds. Slowly, inch-by-inch, I pulled myself out of the water. Rolling onto my back, I breathed and watched.
The birds were large and black. They were diving still, plunging from the air at reckless speeds. They came up from the water with pieces of arms and legs, scaly grey flesh torn apart and swallowed.
“Had to wake the corm’rants,” said a voice behind me, “down at the lake.” I sat up on one elbow and saw the pigeon man. He sat with his hands on his knees and his mouth open wide. He breathed even heavier than he had before. He gave me a toothless grin. “Ha!” he shouted, slapping his leg. “They don’t mind so much when they get a little snack. Keeps ‘em friendly.” 
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Zach Walchuk is a writer and software developer living in Denver, Colorado. His stories have been published in Potluck and Beyond Imagination magazines. A happy husband and expectant father, he likes to find the possible in the everyday. For more from Zach, follow him on Twitter and Medium.

1.33 Count Magnus

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copyright 2015
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Count Magnus

a story by

M. R. James

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By what means the papers out of which I have made a connected story came into my hands is the last point which the reader will learn from these pages. But it is necessary to prefix my extracts from them a statement of the form in which I possess them.
They consist, then, partly of a series of collections for a book of travels, such a volume as was a common product of the forties and fifties. Horace Marryat’s Journal of a Residence in Jutland and the Danish Isles is a fair specimen of the class to which I allude. These books usually treated of some unfamiliar district on the Continent. They were illustrated with woodcuts or steel plates. They gave details of hotel accommodation , and of means of communication, such as we now expect to find in any well-regulated guide-book, and they dealt largely in reported conversations with intelligent foreigners, racy innkeepers and garrulous peasants. In a word, they were chatty.
Begun with the idea of furnishing material for such a book, my papers as they progressed assumed the character of a record of one single personal experience, and this record  was continued up to the very eve, almost, of its termination.
The writer was a Mr. Wraxall. For my knowledge of him I have to depend entirely on the evidence his writings afford, and from these I deduce that he was a man past middle age, possessed of some private means, and very much alone in the world. He had, it seems, no settled abode in England, but was a denizen of hotels and boarding -houses. it is probable that he entertained the idea of settling down at some future time which never came; and I think it also likely that the Pantechnicon fire in the early seventies must have destroyed a great deal that would have thrown light on his antecedents, for he refers once or twice to property of his that was warehoused at that establishment.
It is further apparent that Mr . Wraxall had published a book, and that it treated of a holiday he had once taken in Brittany. more than this I cannot say about his work, because a diligent search in bibliographical works has convinced me that it must have appeared either anonymously or under a pseudonym.
As to his character, it is not difficult to form some superficial opinion. He must have been an intelligent and cultivated man. It seems he was near being a Fellow of his college at Oxford – Brasenose, as I judge from the Calendar. His besetting fault was pretty clearly that of over -inquisitiveness, possibly a good fault in a traveller, certainly a fault for which this traveller paid dearly enough in the end. On what proved top be his last expedition, he was plotting another book. Scandinavia, a region not widely known to Englishmen forty years ago, had struck him as an interesting field. He must have lighted on some old books of Swedish history, or memoirs, and the idea had struck him that there was room for a book descriptive of travel in Sweden, interspersed with episodes from the history of some of the great Swedish families. he procured letters of introduction, therefore, to some persons of quality in Sweden, and set out thither in the early summer of 1863.
Of his travels in the North there is no need to speak, nor of his residence of some weeks in Stockholm. I need only mention that some savant resident there put him on the track of an important collection of family papers belonging to the proprietors of an ancient manor-house in Vestergothland, and obtained for him permission to examine them.
The manor house, or herrgard, in question is to be called Råbäck (pronounced something like Roebeck) though that is not its name. It is one of the best building s of its kind in all the country, and the picture of it in Dahlenberg’s Suecia antiqua et moderna, engraved in 1694, shows it very much as the tourist may see it today. It was built soon after 1600, and is, roughly speaking, very much like an English house of that period in respect of material – red-brick with stone facings – and style. The man who built it was a scion of the great house of De la Gardie, and his descendants possess it still. De la Gardie is the name by which I will designate them when mention of them becomes necessary.
They received Mr. Wraxall with great kindness and courtesy, and pressed him to stay in the house as long as his researches lasted.But, preferring to be independent, and mistrusting his powers of conversing in Swedish, he settled himself at the village inn, which turned out quite sufficiently comfortable, at any rate during the summer months. This arrangement would entail a short walk daily to and from the manor-house of something under a mile. The house itself stood in a park and, and was protected – we should say grown up – with large old timber. Near it you found the walled garden, and then entered a close wood fringing one of the small lakes with which the whole country is pitted. Then came the wall of the demesne, and you climbed a steep knoll – a knob of rock lightly covered with soil – and on the top of this stood the church, fenced in with tall dark trees. It was a curious building to English eyes. The nave and aisles were low, and filled with pews and galleries. In the western gallery stood the handsome old organ, gaily painted, and with silver pipes.The ceiling was flat, and had been adorned by a seventeenth-century artist with a strange and hideous last judgment, full of lurid flames, falling cities, burning ships, crying souls, and brown and smiling demons. Handsome brass coronae hung from the roof; the pulpit was like a dolls-house covered with little painted cherubs and saints; a stand with three hour-glasses was hinged to the preachers desk. Such sights as these may be seen in many a church in Sweden now, but what distinguished this one was an addition to the original building. At the eastern end of the north aisle the builder of the manor -house had erected a mausoleum for himself and his family. it was a largish eight-sided building, lighted by a series of oval windows, and it had a domed roof, topped by a kind of pumpkin-shaped object rising into a spire, a form in which Swedish architects greatly delighted.The roof was of copper externally, and was painted black, while the walls, in common with those of the church, were staringly white. To this mausoleum there was no access from the church. It had a portal and steps of its own on the northern side.
Past the churchyard the path to the village goes, and not more than three or four minutes bring you to the inn door.
On the first day of his stay at Råbäck Mr. Wraxall found the church door open, and made these notes of the interior which I have epitomized. Into the mausoleum, however, he could not make his way. He could, by looking through the keyhole, just descry that there were fine marble effigies and sarcophagi of copper, and a wealth of armorial ornament, which made him very anxious to spend some time in investigation.
The papers he had come to examine at the manor-house proved to be just the kind of thing he wanted for his book.There were family correspondence, journals, and account-books of the earliest owners of the estate, very carefully kept and clearly written, full of amusing and picturesque detail. The first De La Gardie appeared in them as a strong and capable man. Shortly after the building of the mansion there had been a period of distress in the district, and the peasants had risen and attacked several chateaux and done some damage. The owner of Råbäck took a leading part in suppressing the trouble, and there was reference to executions of ringleaders and severe punishments inflicted with no sparing hand.
The portrait of this Magnus de la Gardie was one of the best in the house, and Mr Wraxall studied it with no little interest after his day’s work. He gives no detailed description of it, but I gather that the face impressed him rather by its power than by its beauty or goodness; in fact, he writes that Count Magnus was an almost phenomenally ugly man.
On this day Mr Wraxall took his supper with the family, and walked back in the late but still bright evening.
“I must remember,” he writes, “to ask the sexton if he can let me into the mausoleum at the church. He evidently has access to it himself, for I saw him tonight standing in the steps, and, as I thought, either locking or unlocking the door.”
I find that early on the following day Mr Wraxall had some conversation with his landlord.His setting it down at such length as he does surprised me at first; but I soon realized that the papers I was reading here were, at least in their beginning, the materials for the book he was meditating, and that it was to have been one of those quasi-journalistic productions which admit of the introduction of an admixture of conversational matter.
His object, he says, was to find out whether any traditions of Count Magnus de la Gardie lingered on in the scenes of that gentleman’s activity, and whether the popular estimate of him were favourable or not. He found that the Count was decidedly not a favourite. If his tenants came late to their work on the days which they owed to him as Lord of the Manor, they were set on the wooden horse, or flogged and branded in the manor-house yard. One or two cases there were of men who had occupied lands which encroached on the lord’s domain, and whose houses had been mysteriously burnt on a winter’s night, with the whole family inside. But what seemed dwell on the innkeeper’s mind most- for he returned to the subject more than once- was that the Count had been on the Black Pilgrimage, and had brought something or someone back with him.
You will naturally inquire, as Mr Wraxall did, what the Black Pilgrimage may have been. But your curiosity on the point must remain unsatisfied for the time being, just as his did. The landlord was evidently unwilling to give a full answer, or indeed any answer, on the point, and being called out for the moment, trotted out with obvious alacrity, only putting his head in at the door to say that he was called away to Skara, and should not be back until evening.
So Mr Wraxall had to go unsatisfied to his day’s work at the manor house. The papers on which he was just then engaged soon put his thoughts into another channel, for he had to occupy himself with glancing over the correspondence between Sophia Albertina in Stockholm and her married cousin Ulrica Leonora at Råbäck in the years 1705-10. The letter were of exceptional interest for the light they threw upon the culture of that period in Sweden, as anyone can testify who has read the full edition of them in the publications of the Swedish Historical Manuscripts Commission.
In the afternoon he had done with these, and after returning the boxes in which they were kept to their places on the shelf, he proceeded,very naturally, to take down some of the volumes nearest to them, in order to determine which of them had best be his principal subject of investigation next day. The shelf he had hit upon was occupied mostly by a collection of account-books in the writing of the first Count Magnus. But one among them was not an account-book, but a book of alchemical and other tracts in another sixteenth-century hand. Not being very familiar with alchemical literature, Mr Wraxall spends much space which he might have spared in setting out the names and beginnings of the various treatises; The book of the Phoenix, book of the Thirty Words,book of the Toad, book of Miriam, Turba Philosophorum, and so forth; and then he announces with a good deal of circumstance his delight at finding, on a leaf originally left blank near the middle of the book, some writing of Count Magnus himself headed ‘Liber nigrae peregrinationis’. It is true that only a few lines were written, but there was quite enough to show that the landlord had that morning been referring to a belief at least as old as the time of Count Magnus, and probably shared by him. This is the English of what was written:
‘If any man desires to obtain a long life, if he would obtain a faithful messenger and see the blood of his enemies, it is necessary that he should first go into the city of Chorazin, and there salute the prince…’ Here there was an erasure of one word, not very thoroughly done, so that Mr Wraxall felt pretty sure that he was right in reading it as aeris (‘of the air’). But there was no more of the text copied, only a line in Latin: Quaere reliqua hujus materiei inter secretiora. (See the rest of this matter among the more private things.).
It could not be denied that this threw a rather lurid light on the tastes and beliefs of the Count; but to Mr Wraxall, separated from him by nearly three centuries, the thought that the might have added to his general forcefulness alchemy, and to alchemy something like magic, only made him a more picturesque figure, and when, after a rather prolonged contemplation of his picture in the hall, Mr Wraxall set out on his homeward way, his mind was full of the thought of Count Magnus. He had no eyes for his surroundings, no perceptions of the evening scents of the woods or the evening light on the lake; and when all of a sudden he pulled up short, he was astonished to find himself already at the gate of the churchyard, and within a few minutes of his dinner. His eyes fell on the mausoleum.
“Ah,” he said, “Count Magnus, there you are. I should dearly like to see you”.
“Like many solitary men,” he writes, “I have a habit of talking to myself aloud; and, unlike some of the Greek and Latin particles, I do not expect an answer. Certainly and perhaps fortunately in this case, there was neither voice nor any that regarded: only the woman who, I suppose, was cleaning up the church, dropped some metallic object on the floor, whose clang startled me. Count Magnus, I think, sleeps sound enough.”
That same evening the landlord of the inn, who had heard Mr Wraxall say that he wished to see the clerk or deacon (as he would be called in Sweden) of the parish, introduced him to that official in the inn parlour.A visit to the De la Gardie tomb-house was soon arranged for the next day, and a little general conversation ensued.
Mr Wraxall, remembering that one function of Scandinavian deacons is to teach candidates for Confirmation, thought he would refresh his own memory on a Biblical point.
“Can you tell me,” he said,”anything about Chorazin?”
The deacon seemed startled, but readily reminded him how that village had once been denounced.
“To be sure,” said Mr Wraxall,”it is, I suppose, quite a ruin now?”
“So I expect,” replied the deacon.”I have heard some of our old priests say that Antichrist is to be born there; and there are tales-“
“Ah!” what tales are those?” Mr Wraxall put in.
“Tales, I was going to say, which I have forgotten,” said the deacon; and soon after that he said good night.
The landlord was now alone, and at Mr Wraxall’s mercy; and that inquirer was not inclined to spare him.
“Herr Nielsen,” he said, “I have found out something about the Black Pilgrimage. You may as well tell me what you know. What did the Count bring back with him?”
Swedes are habitually slow, perhaps, in answering, or perhaps the landlord was an exception. I am not sure; but Mr Wraxall notes that the landlord spent at least one minute in looking at him before he said anything at all. Then he came close up to his guest, and with a good deal of effort he spoke:
“Mr Wraxall, I can tell you this one little tale, and no more – not any more. You must not ask anything when I have done. In my grandfather’s time – that is, ninety-two years ago – there were two men who said:’The Count is dead; we do not care for him. We will go tonight and have a free hunt in his wood’ – the long wood on the hill that you have seen behind Råbäck.Well, those that heard them say this, they said:’No, do not go; we are sure you will meet with persons walking who should not be walking. They should be resting, not walking.’ These men laughed. There were no forest-men to keep the wood, because no one wished to live there. The family were not here at the house. These men could do what they wished.
“Very well, they go to the wood that night. My grandfather was sitting here in this room. It was the summer, and a light night. With the window open, he could see out to the wood, and hear.
“So he sat there, and two or three men with him, and they listened. At first they hear nothing at all; then they hear someone- you know how far away it is- they hear someone scream, just as if the most inside part of his soul was twisted out of him. All of them in the room caught hold of each other, and they sat so for three quarters of an hour. Then they hear someone else, only about three hundred ells off. They hear him laugh out loud: it was not one of those two men who laughed, and indeed, they have all of them said that it was not any man at all. After that they hear a great door shut.
“Then, when it was just light with the sun, they all went to the priest. They said to him: Father, put on your gown and your ruff, and come to bury these men, Anders Bjornsen and Hans Thorbjorn.’
“You understand that they were sure these men were dead. So they went to the wood- my grandfather never forgot this. He said they were all like so many dead men themselves. The priest, too, he was in a white fear. He said when they came to him:
‘I heard one cry in the night, and I heard one laugh afterwards. If I cannot forget that, I shall not be able to sleep again.’
“So they went to the wood, and they found these men on the edge of the wood. Hans Thorbjorn was standing with his back against a tree, and all the time he was pushing with his hands- pushing something away from him which was not there. So he was not dead. And they led him away, and took him to the house at Nykjoping and he died before the winter; but he went on pushing with his hands. Also Anders Bjornsen was there; but he was dead. And I tell you this about Anders Bjornsen, that he was once a beautiful man, but now his face was not there, because the flesh of it was sucked away off the bones. You understand that? My grandfather did not forget that. And they laid him on the bier which they had brought, and and they put a cloth over his head, and the priest walked before; and they begin to sing the psalm for the dead as well as they could. So, as they were singing the end of the first verse, one fell down, who was carrying the head of the bier, and the others looked back, and they saw that the cloth had fallen off, and the eyes of Anders Bjornsen were looking up, because there was nothing to close over them.And this they could not bear. Therefore the priest laid the cloth upon him, and sent for a spade, and they buried him in that place.”
The next day Mr Wraxall records that the deacon called for him soon after his breakfast, and took him to the church and mausoleum. He noticed that the key of the latter was hung on a nail just by the pulpit, and it occurred to him that, as the church door seemed to be left unlocked as a rule, it would not be difficult for him to pay a second and more private visit to the monuments if there proved to be more of interest among them than could be digested at first. The building, when he entered it, he found not unimposing. The monuments, mostly large erections of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, were dignified if luxuriant,and the epitaphs and heraldry were copious. The central space of the domed room was occupied by three copper sarcophagi, covered with finely engraved ornament. Two of them had, as is commonly the case in Denmark and Sweden, a large metal crucifix on the lid. The third,that of Count Magnus, as it appeared, had, instead of that, a full-length effigy engraved upon it, and round the edge were several bands of similar ornament representing various scenes. one was a battle, with cannon belching out smoke, and walled towns, and troops of pikemen. Another showed an execution. In a third, among trees, was a man running at full speed, with flying hair and outstretched hands. After him followed a strange form; it would be hard to say whether the artist had intended it for a man, and was unable to give it the requisite similitude, or whether it was intentionally made as monstrous as it looked. In view of the skill with which the rest of the drawing was done, Mr Wraxall felt inclined to adopt the latter idea. the figure was unduly short, and was for the most part muffled in a hooded garment which swept the ground. The only part of the form which projected from that shelter was not shaped like any hand or arm. Mr Wraxall compares it to the tentacle of a devil-fish, and continues:”On seeing this, I said to myself,”This, then which is evidently an allegorical representation of some kind- a fiend pursuing a hunted soul – may be the origin of the story of Count Magnus and his mysterious companion. Let us see how the huntsman is pictured: doubtless it will be a demon blowing his horn.” But, as it turned out, there was no such sensational figure, only the semblance of a cloaked man on a hillock, who stood leaning on a stick, and watching the hunt with an interest which the engraver had tried to express in his attitude.
Mr Wraxall noted the finely-worked and massive steel padlocks – three in number – which secured the sarcophagus. One of them, he saw, was detached, and lay upon the pavement. And then, unwilling to delay the deacon longer or waste his own working time, he made his onward to the manor-house,
“It is curious, ” he notes, “how, on retracing a familiar path, one’s thoughts engross one to the absolute exclusion of surrounding objects. Tonight, for the second time, I had entirely failed to notice where I was going (I had planned a private visit to the tomb-house to copy the epitaphs), when I suddenly, as it were, awoke to consciousness, and found myself (as before) turning in at the churchyard gate, and, as I believe, singing or chanting some some such words as, “Are you awake, Count Magnus?Are you asleep, Count Magnus?” and then something more which I have failed to recollect. It seemed to me that I must have been behaving in this nonsensical way for some time.”
He found the key of the mausoleum where he had expected to find it, and copied the greater part of what he wanted; in fact, he stayed until the light began to fail him.
“I must have been wrong,” he writes, “in saying that one of the locks of the Count’s sarcophagus was unfastened; I see tonight that two are loose. I picked both up, and laid them carefully on the window-ledge, after trying unsuccessfully to close them. The remaining one is still firm, and, though I take it to be a spring lock, I cannot guess how it is opened. Had I succeeded in undoing it, I am almost afraid I should have taken the liberty of opening the sarcophagus. It is strange, the interest I feel in the personality of this, I fear, somewhat ferocious and grim old noble.”
The day following was, as it turned out, the last of Mr Wraxall’s stay at Råbäck. He received letters connected with certain investments which made it desirable that he should return to England; his work among the papers was practically done, and travelling was slow. He decided, therefore, to make his farewells, put some finishing touches to his notes, and be off.
These finishing touches and farewells, as it turned out,took more time than he had expected. The hospitable family insisted on his staying to dine with them – they dined at three – and it was verging on half past six before he was outside the iron gates of Råbäck. He dwelt on every step of his walk by the lake, determined to saturate himself, now that he trod it for the last time, in the sentiment of the place and hour. And when he reached the summit of the church yard knoll, he lingered for many minutes, gazing at the limitless prospect of woods near and distant, all dark beneath a sky of liquid green. When at last he turned to go, the thought struck him that surely he must bid farewell to Count Magnus as well as the rest of the De la Gardies. The church was but twenty yards away, and he knew where the key of the mausoleum hung. It was not long before he was standing over the great copper coffin, and as usual, talking to himself aloud:”You may have been a bit of a rascal in your time, Magnus, ” he was saying,”but for all that I should like to see you, or rather-“
“Just at that instant,” he says, “I felt a blow on my foot.Hastily enough I drew it back, and something fell on the pavement with a clash. It was the third, the last of the three padlocks which had fastened the sarcophagus. I stooped to pick it up, and – Heaven is my witness that I am writing only the bare truth – before I had raised myself there was a sound of metal hinges creaking, and I distinctly saw the lid shifting upwards. I may have behaved like a coward, but I could not for my life stay for one moment. I was outside that dreadful building in less time than I can write – almost as quickly as I could have said – the words; and what frightens me yet more, I could not turn the key in the lock. As I sit here in my room noting these facts, I ask myself (it was not twenty minutes ago) whether that noise of creaking metal continued, and I cannot tell whether it did or not. I only know that there was something more than I have written that alarmed me, but whether it was sound or sight I am not able to remember. What is this that I have done?”
Poor Mr Wraxall! he set out on his journey to England on the next day, as he had planned, and he reached England in safety; and yet, as I judge from his changed hand and inconsequent jottings, a broken man.One of the several small note-books that have come to me with his papers gives, not a key to, but a kind of inkling of, his experiences. Much of his journey was by canal-boat, and I find not less than six painful attempts to enumerate and describe his fellow-passengers. The entries are of this kind:
24. Pastor of village in Skåne. Usual black coat and soft black hat.
25. Commercial Traveller from Stockholm going to Trollhättan. Black cloak, brown hat.
26.Man in long black cloak, broad-leafed hat, very old-fashioned.
This entry is lined out, and a note added:”Perhaps identical with No.13. Have not yet seen his face.” On referring to No. 13, I find that he is a Roman priest in a cassock.
The net result of the reckoning is always the same. Twenty-eight people appear in the enumeration, one being always a man in a long black cloak and broad hat, and the other a ‘short figure in dark cloak and hood’. On the other hand, it is always noted that only twenty-six passengers appear at meals, and that the man in the cloak is perhaps absent, and the short figure is certainly absent.
On reaching England, it appears that Mr Wraxall landed at Harwich, and that he resolved at once to put himself out of the reach of some person or persons whom he never specifies, but whom he had evidently come to regard as his pursuers. Accordingly he took a vehicle – it was a closed fly – not trusting the railway, and drove across country to the village of Belchamp St Paul. It was about nine o’clock on a moonlight August night when he neared the place. He was sitting forward, and looking out of the window at the fields and thickets – there was little else to be seen – racing past him. Suddenly he came to a cross-road. At the corner two figures were standing motionless; both were in dark cloaks; the taller one wore a hat, the shorter a hood. He had no time to see their faces, nor did they make any motion that he could discern. Yet the horse shied violently and broke into a gallop, and Mr Wraxall sank back into his seat in something like desperation.he had seen them before.
Arrived at Belchamp St.Paul, he was fortunate enough to find a decent furnished lodging, and for the next twenty-four hours he lived, comparatively speaking, in peace. His last notes were written on this day.They are too disjointed and ejaculatory to be given here in full, but the substance of them is clear enough.He is expecting a visit from his pursuers – how or when he knows not – and his constant cry is “What has he done?” and “Is there no hope?” Doctors, he knows, would call him mad, policemen would laugh at him.The parson is away. What can he do but lock his door and cry to God?
People still remember last year at Belchamp St Paul how a strange gentleman came one evening in August years back; and how the next morning but one he was found dead, and there was an inquest; and the jury that viewed the body fainted, seven of ’em did, and none of ’em wouldn’t speak to what they see, and the verdict was a visitation of God; and how the people as kep’ the ‘ouse moved out that same week, and went away from that part. But they do not, I think, know that any glimmer of light has been thrown, or could be thrown, on the mystery. It so happened that last year the little house came into my hands as part of a legacy. It had stood empty since 1863, and there seemed no prospect of letting it; so I had it pulled down, and the papers of which I have given you an abstract were found in a forgotten cupboard under the window in the best bedroom.

1.32 Dismal End

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copyright 2015
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Dismal End

a story by

Tabitha Novotny

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She turns them over in her old, traitorous hands, wishing they would move with the gracefulness they had once upon a time. She remembers when their moves dazzled the world, whirling, twirling, while laughter played around them in invisible waves. But that was long ago, when her hands were fast, when they obeyed her commands. Snap! There goes a string. Snap! Another. She sighs while tears fall onto their dusty porcelain faces. She says goodbye as she takes her final breath.
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Tabitha Novotny is a homeschooled teenager who loves to write dark, twisted stories and poetry. She also paints landscapes, creates masks, volunteers at the library, watches Horror films, discusses with her family different ideas for new stories, and so much more.

1.31 Jean Grenier

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Jean Grenier

a story by

Sabine Baring-Gould

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One fine afternoon in the Spring, some village girls were tending their sheep on the sand-dunes which intervene between the vast forests of pine covering the greater portion of the present department of Landes in the south of France, and the sea.
The brightness of the sky, the freshness of the air puffing up off the blue twinkling Bay of Biscay, the hum or song of the wind as it made rich music among the pines which stood like a green uplifted wave on the East, the beauty of the sand-hills speckled with golden cistus, or patched with gentian-blue, by the low growing Gremille couchée, the charm of the forest-skirts, tinted variously with the foliage of cork-trees, pines, and acacia, the latter in full bloom, a pile of rose-coloured or snowy flowers,–all conspired to fill the peasant maidens with joy, and to make their voices rise in song and laughter, which rung merrily over the hills, and through the dark avenues of evergreen trees.
Now a gorgeous butterfly attracted their attention, then a flight of quails skimming the surface.
“Ah!” exclaimed Jacquiline Auzun,” ah, if I had my stilts and bats, I would strike the little birds down, and we should have a fine supper.”
“Now, if they would fly ready cooked into one’s mouth, as they do in foreign parts!” said another girl.
“Have you got any new clothes for the S. Jean?” asked a third; “my mother has laid by to purchase me a smart cap with gold lace.”
“You will turn the head of Etienne altogether, Annette!” said Jeanne Gaboriant. “But what is the matter with the sheep?”
She asked because the sheep which had been quietly browsing before her, on reaching a small depression in the dune, had started away as though frightened at something. At the same time one of the dogs began to growl and show his fangs.
The girls ran to the spot, and saw a little fall in the ground, in which, seated on a log of fir, was a boy of thirteen. The appearance of the lad was peculiar. His hair was of a tawny red and thickly matted, falling over his shoulders and completely covering his narrow brow. His small pale-grey eyes twinkled with an expression of horrible ferocity and cunning, from deep sunken hollows. The complexion was of a dark olive colour; the teeth were strong and white, and the canine teeth protruded over the lower lip when the mouth was closed. The boy’s hands were large and powerful, the nails black and pointed like bird’s talons. He was ill clothed, and seemed to be in the most abject poverty. The few garments he had on him were in tatters, and through the rents the emaciation of his limbs was plainly visible.
The girls stood round him, half frightened and much surprised, but the boy showed no symptoms of astonishment. His face relaxed into a ghastly leer, which showed the whole range of his glittering white fangs.
“Well, my maidens,” said he in a harsh voice, “which of you is the prettiest, I should like to know; can you decide among you?”
“What do you want to know for?” asked Jeanne Gaboriant, the eldest of the girls, aged eighteen, who took upon herself to be spokesman for the rest.
“Because I shall marry the prettiest,” was the answer.
“Ah!” said Jeanne jokingly; “that is if she will have you, which is not very likely, as we none of us know you, or anything about you.”
“I am the son of a priest,” replied the boy curtly.
“Is that why you look so dingy and black?”
“No, I am dark-coloured, because I wear a wolf-skin sometimes.”
“A wolf-skin!” echoed the girl; “and pray who gave it you?”
“One called Pierre Labourant.”
“There is no man of that name hereabouts. Where does he live?”
A scream of laughter mingled with howls, and breaking into strange gulping bursts of fiendlike merriment from the strange boy.
The little girls recoiled, and the youngest took refuge behind Jeanne.
“Do you want to know Pierre Labourant, lass? Hey, he is a man with an iron chain about his neck, which he is ever engaged in gnawing. Do you want to know where he lives, lass? Ha., in a place of gloom and fire, where there are many companions, some seated on iron chairs, burning, burning; others stretched on glowing beds, burning too. Some cast men upon blazing coals, others roast men before fierce flames, others again plunge them into caldrons of liquid fire.”
The girls trembled and looked at each other with scared faces, and then again at the hideous being which crouched before them.
“You want to know about the wolf-skin cape?” continued he. “Pierre Labourant gave me that; he wraps it round me, and every Monday, Friday, and Sunday, and for about an hour at dusk every other day, I am a wolf, a were-wolf. I have killed dogs and drunk their blood; but little girls taste better, their flesh is tender and sweet, their blood rich and warm. I have eaten many a maiden, as I have been on my raids together with my nine companions. I am a were-wolf! Ah, ha! if the sun were to set I would soon fall on one of you and make a meal of you!” Again he burst into one of his frightful paroxysms of laughter, and the girls unable to endure it any longer, fled with precipitation.
Near the village of S. Antoine de Pizon, a little girl of the name of Marguerite Poirier, thirteen years old, was in the habit of tending her sheep, in company with a lad of the same age, whose name was Jean Grenier. The same lad whom Jeanne Gaboriant had questioned.
The little girl often complained to her parents of the conduct of the boy: she said that he frightened her with his horrible stories; but her father and mother thought little of her complaints, till one day she returned home before her usual time so thoroughly alarmed that she had deserted her flock. Her parents now took the matter up and investigated it. Her story was as follows:–
Jean had often told her that he had sold himself to the devil, and that he had acquired the power of ranging the country after dusk, and sometimes in broad day, in the form of a wolf. He had assured her that he had killed and devoured many dogs, but that he found their flesh less palatable than the flesh of little girls, which he regarded as a supreme delicacy. He had told her that this had been tasted by him not unfrequently, but he had specified only two instances: in one he had eaten as much as he could, and had thrown the rest to a wolf, which had come up during the repast. In the other instance he had bitten to death another little girl, had lapped her blood, and, being in a famished condition at the time, had devoured every portion of her, with the exception of the arms and shoulders.
The child told her parents, on the occasion of her return home in a fit of terror, that she had been guiding her sheep as usual, but Grenier had not been present. Hearing a rustle in the bushes she had looked round, and a wild beast bad leaped upon her, and torn her clothes on her left side with its sharp fangs. She added that she had defended herself lustily with her shepherd’s staff, and had beaten the creature off. It had then retreated a few paces, had seated itself on its hind legs like a dog when it is begging, and had regarded her with such a look of rage, that she had fled in terror. She described the animal as resembling a wolf, but as being shorter and stouter; its hair was red, its tail stumpy, and the head smaller than that of a genuine wolf.
The statement of the child produced general consternation in the parish. It was well known that several little girls had vanished in a most mysterious way of late, and the parents of these little ones were thrown into an agony of terror lest their children had become the prey of the wretched boy accused by Marguerite Poirier. The case was now taken up by the authorities and brought before the parliament of Bordeaux.
The investigation which followed was as complete as could be desired.
Jean Grenier was the son of a poor labourer in the village of S. Antoine do Pizon, and not the son of a priest, as he had asserted. Three months before his seizure he had left home, and had been with several masters doing odd work, or wandering about the country begging. He had been engaged several times to take charge of the flocks belonging to farmers, and had as often been discharged for neglect of his duties. The lad exhibited no reluctance to communicate all he knew about himself, and his statements were tested one by one, and were often proved to be correct.
The story he related of himself before the court was as follows:–
“When I was ten or eleven years old, my neighbour, Duthillaire, introduced me, in the depths of the forest, to a M. de la Forest, a black man, who signed me with his nail, and then gave to me and Duthillaire a salve and a wolf-skin. From that time have I run about the country as a wolf.
“The charge of Marguerite Poirier is correct. My intention was to have killed and devoured her, but she kept me off with a stick. I have only killed one dog, a white one, and I did not drink its blood.”
When questioned touching the children, whom he said he had killed and eaten as a wolf, he allowed that he had once entered an empty house on the way between S. Coutras and S. Anlaye, in a small village, the name of which he did not remember, and had found a child asleep in its cradle; and as no one was within to hinder him, he dragged the baby out of its cradle, carried it into the garden, leaped the hedge, and devoured as much of it as satisfied his hunger. What remained he had given to a wolf. In the parish of S. Antoine do Pizon he had attacked a little girl, as she was keeping sheep. She was dressed in a black frock; he did not know her name. He tore her with his nails and teeth, and ate her. Six weeks before his capture he had fallen upon another child, near the stone-bridge, in the same parish. In Eparon he had assaulted the hound of a certain M. Millon, and would have killed the beast, had not the owner come out with his rapier in his hand.
Jean said that he had the wolf-skin in his possession, and that he went out hunting for children, at the command of his master, the Lord of the Forest. Before transformation he smeared himself with the salve, which be preserved in a small pot, and hid his clothes in the thicket.
He usually ran his courses from one to two hours in the day, when the moon was at the wane, but very often he made his expeditions at night. On one occasion he had accompanied Duthillaire, but they had killed no one.
He accused his father of having assisted him, and of possessing a wolf-skin; he charged him also with having accompanied him on one occasion, when he attacked and ate a girl in the village of Grilland, whom he had found tending a flock of geese. He said that his stepmother was separated from his father. He believed the reason to be, because she had seen him once vomit the paws of a dog and the fingers of a child. He added that the Lord of the Forest had strictly forbidden him to bite the thumb-nail of his left hand, which nail was thicker and longer than the others, and had warned him never to lose sight of it, as long as he was in his were-wolf disguise.
Duthillaire was apprehended, and the father of Jean Grenier himself claimed to be heard by examination.
The account given by the father and stepmother of Jean coincided in many particulars with the statements made by their son.
The localities where Grenier declared he had fallen on children were identified, the times when he said the deeds had been done accorded with the dates given by the parents of the missing little ones, when their losses had occurred.
The wounds which Jean affirmed that he had made, and the manner in which he had dealt them, coincided with the descriptions given by the children he had assaulted.
He was confronted with Marguerite Poirier, and he singled her out from among five other girls, pointed to the still open gashes in her body, and stated that he had made them with his teeth, when he attacked her in wolf-form, and she had beaten him off with a stick. He described an attack he had made on a little boy whom he would have slain, had not a man come to the rescue, and exclaimed, “I’ll have you presently.”
The man who saved the child was found, and proved to be the uncle of the rescued lad, and he corroborated the statement of Grenier, that he had used the words mentioned above.
Jean was then confronted with his father. He now began to falter in his story, and to change his statements. The examination had lasted long, and it was seen that the feeble intellect of the boy was wearied out, so the case was adjourned. When next confronted with the elder Grenier, Jean told his story as at first, without changing it in any important particular.
The fact of Jean Grenier having killed and eaten several children, and of his having attacked and wounded others, with intent to take their life, were fully established; but there was no proof whatever of the father having had the least hand in any of the murders, so that he was dismissed the court without a shadow of guilt upon him.
The only witness who corroborated the assertion of Jean that he changed his shape into that of a wolf was Marguerite Poirier.
Before the court gave judgment, the first president of assize, in an eloquent speech, put on one side all questions of witchcraft and diabolical compact, and bestial transformation, and boldly stated that the court had only to consider the age and the imbecility of the child, who was so dull and idiotic–that children of seven or eight years old have usually a larger amount of reason than he. The president went on to say that Lycanthropy and Kuanthropy were mere hallucinations, and that the change of shape existed only in the disorganized brain of the insane, consequently it was not a crime which could be punished. The tender age of the boy must be taken into consideration, and the utter neglect of his education and moral development. The court sentenced Grenier to perpetual imprisonment within the walls of a monastery at Bordeaux, where he might be instructed in his Christian and moral obligations; but any attempt to escape would be punished with death.
A pleasant companion for the monks! a promising pupil for them to instruct! No sooner was he admitted into the precincts of the religious house, than he ran frantically about the cloister and gardens upon all fours, and finding a heap of bloody and raw offal, fell upon it and devoured it in an incredibly short space of time.
Delancre visited him seven years after, and found him diminutive in stature, very shy, and unwilling to look any one in the face. His eyes were deep set and restless; his teeth long and protruding; his nails black, and in places worn away; his mind was completely barren; he seemed unable to comprehend the smallest things. He related his story to Delancre, and told him how he had run about formerly in the woods as a wolf, and he said that he still felt a craving for raw flesh, especially for that of little girls, which he said was delicious, and he added that but for his confinement it would not be long before he tasted it again. He said that the Lord of the Forest had visited him twice in the prison, but that he had driven him off with the sign of the cross. The account be then gave of his murders coincided exactly with what had come out in his trial; and beside this, his story of the compact he had made with the Black One, and the manner in which his transformation was effected, also coincided with his former statements.
He died at the age of twenty, after an imprisonment of seven years, shortly after Delancre’s visit.

1.30 Old Tastes Sweeter!

vampirecopyright 2015

Old Tastes Sweeter!

a story by

Luciane de Souza

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I don’t know the date, place, or even the time of writing these words—simply because I do not know. The last thing I remember is hanging a blue silk dress on the clothesline to dry, after having arrived from a graduation party. Then he came, grabbed my arm, and took me.
I don’t know how long ago that I became his prisoner, or as he says, his ‘preferred.’ The worst is having to see him do this repeatedly with others. The most touching scene for me was when he let little Amelia return to her parents. I think that I exert a certain influence on him, at least to some extent. He has made it clear that I will not starve because I feel sorry for his prey.
I decided to write this letter to let my family know what happened to me. Shortly after we left, I watched a newscast where my husband asked me to come back. I cried for three whole days. I did not die dehydrated because he watched me all the time and did not allow me to go without eating or drinking. This led me to believe that he might one day let me go. “Concern” for me is his instinct. Nobody eats favorite candy too fast. We like to taste it—and that’s what he does to me. Today is Christmas Morning—or Christmas Eve—and he bought me a blue silk scarf, the same shade of the dress that I hung on the line. It has been three or four Christmases since he kidnapped me, and today was the first day I actually thought I was dying. The feeling started when he took the last victim for our stash. Our. I have started to think we are a couple!
He spends seven or nine days watching the ones he chooses as food. He watches every step of the person (mostly women) and observes how they behave; how they eat and with whom they relate. He prefers older. He says that the blood of mature women is sweeter; that knowledge about the life we have is ingrained in our blood. I’ll never forget the day he kissed me for the first time, starting at my face to reach my neck. His bite was fast and delicate, barely felt when he finished. I think the amount of blood he sucked from me… sorry, I don’t want you know about it. It would be humiliating and scary if my grandchildren knew.
When he decides, he lurks and waits for an opportunity to get what he wants. He only come out of hiding at night. His preference at this time is difficult to understand, but he settles for young girls. These are the ones who suffer most. He locks them somewhere far away so I do not see, but I can hear their screams. I do not know if he knows I can hear, or worse, if he does this to terrify me! He keeps them for five to seven days. Then he rapes them and sucks their blood. When they die, he throws them in the house where they lived. This is cruel.
Five days ago, he brought a girl and her younger sister Amelia. I begged him to give Amelia back. She was no more than eight years. It was not fair that she should die that way. When he agreed with me, a glimmer of hope crossed my heart. The days passed quickly. I heard the cries of the older sister, and during the day, I counted the steps to get to where she was. With all the confusion of Amelia, he had forgotten to fasten the padlock that held the chains on my legs to the basement girder.
He always brought food and water for me, and I kept some of that food and water for the girl. By surprise, he walked in, grabbed my hair, and threw me against the wall. I feel two or more ribs are broken, and certainly my right foot is twisted.
“What do you think you’re doing?” His bloodshot eyes shined, his teeth whiter than I have ever seen. “How did you get out?”
“I just… she is hurt…” I did not know how to explain that we both tried to think of a way to escape.
He picked me up and sat me on the mattress where the girl lay tied. “Pay attention to this,” he said softly. “Watch.” He lay down on the girl. His hands roamed all over her skeletal body. The food I gave her was not enough to supply all the blood he took overnight. He bit her neck and lay still, only moaning as her blood entered his mouth. I turned my face. I could not bear to see this scene. When he finished, he took me back to the basement. I never discovered how he could find those horrible places. He closed the padlock and left. During the day, the young girl—I had thought she was dead—came through the door. She wobbled and held to the walls. Maybe she was just making herself look weak. I mean, she was visibly weak, but not too weak.
Everything happened quickly. She held a piece of wood. When he came in, he looked at us with an anger in his eyes that left me paralyzed. She had no chance. When she got close enough to drive the stake through his heart, he simply grabbed her neck with one hand and with the other pulled her by the hair until her head was severed from her body. I fainted.
When I woke up, he was sitting in front of me holding the head of the girl. He had a creepy smile on its thin, black lips. His skin was as white as a paper and his long black hair was shiny and silky. He could have easily be likened to a fairytale prince, if he had not been a monster. “You want to leave me?” he asked, still smiling. “Want to go home?”
I sighed. “Yes… but not like the others…” I was sure he was joking with me, as he always did in the early days. I wanted to go back alive! He looked at me in a way that frightened me. He was no longer smiling. Blood dripped from the head no longer, and I did not see the body. He stood and held out his hand. He took me to a window. I could see a tower covered by a thin layer of snow.
“Where are we?”
“Don’t you recognize that building?” he asked, seeming to be astonished.
“I guess…”
“It is the building that is in front of your home!”
I stared at him in disbelief. I looked back out the window. Yes! We were a few streets behind my house. But, how?
“Every Christmas I bring you here. You never noticed?”
I looked and saw his face illuminate demonically. He did this for fun! Without thinking of anything but returning to my family, I pushed him away and ran, stumbling, to the door. I hit my face on his chest, hard as rock.
“You will not come back!” He held me by the waist and pressed his icy lips on my neck. I knew what would happen.
+
When I returned from my dream world, he was no longer with me. I wandered through a small space, I could not think of anything until I found this piece of paper, which is actually the back of a cookbook. It is burnt. I think this is the old house of the Silva family, which burned years ago.
So here I am, writing what has happened to me. Every moment I go to the window hoping to see someone to deliver these words. Who knows? Someone may enter this house during the day and save me! He is likely to go off to hunt another victim. So, if you can call the police or a lot of men to come here… If this is not possible, I just wish my family lives happy, do not worry about me. He is cruel, but he is never really a monster to me.
Love, Helena.
+
I almost felt sorry for her when I caught her handing this letter to a man passing by the window. You see, she knew that I have great hearing. Why did she yell at the man approaching? She knew I would not forgive something like this and that man would also pay! I really believed that she knew me. After all, we spent six years together. It was really a shame to have to suck all of her blood from her. I even enjoyed her company! Humans are really funny! Anyway, I will personally deliver her letter. This seemed to be a strong desire of hers. Never before has a woman of 86 years excited me as much as she. It will certainly be a long time until I find another as nice as her.

1.29 Claribel

o_______o_by_betterthanbunnies-d4drk5lcopyright 2015

Claribel

a story by

David W. Landrum

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I was born with a caul—part of my mother’s womb attached to my head and covering my face. This is considered a good sign. The midwife preserved the caul and gave it to me. I bore it across the sea when I went to marry the King of Tunis. Perhaps the good weather we had then resulted from its presence (that is one story told about cauls). But if the stories about cauls are true, and they bestow some sort of special power to the one born covered, my behavior growing up would be more a sign of its magic than anything else.
Princesses live to be married. We learn to dance, look pretty, and manipulate men. I hated those expectations and detested the training I received to fulfill them. I remember rebelling against them at about age 9.
Some of my departures: 
Riding. As a Princess, you learn to ride, but only so you can sit atop a white filly and go in a procession at a trot with two grooms walking alongside holding the reigns for you. I learned to ride at a ferocious gallop and soon had a stallion who would not listen to commands from anyone but me.
Walking. I walked in the wood. You may not deem that unusual, but a pure princess should not go where peasants live and wild animals roam; nor should she take off her shoes, hike up her skirts, and go wading in streams; or bathe in one of the delightful hot springs that erupted deep in my father’s hunting parks.
My parents were alarmed. As I came of age, the men to whom I might be married looked on me with a wary eye. I looked on them as crude, unlettered louts and did not return their overtures of affection. Most noblewomen in our kingdom were married off at age 16 or 17. I resisted the arrangements father proposed. Soon I was 20, then 22, 24—past the typical age of marriage. And I had no intention of becoming a nun.
Grumbling arose. Rumor spread that I had secretly become a Protestant—not true, but the fact that I, out of curiosity, had read Calvin, Luther, and Tyndale deepened the suspicion. Father grew anxious. Scheming nobles who wanted to be king abounded; they had allies and relatives in the Church. My behavior would give them occasion to bring a change against him. He knew that he had to do something with me, and soon.
I also knew what he had done to Prospero and his child Miranda. I had lodged for a Summer in the house of a noble family in Milan when I was 9 years. These nobles had a daughter who was lonely, so Father and Mother sent me there when Father said he had some ‘business’ in the area. I liked Cynthia. She taught me to speak English. I supplied her with books for clandestine reading. She was a delightful girl who shared my love for riding and mischief. She became my friend. One night, she snuck into my bed chamber and said she had seen my father. We dressed in warm, dark-colored garments and slipped down to the shoreline just below their home. Sure enough, Father was there, along with Antonio, the powerful Duke of Milan. We hid behind a rock as he, my Father, other nobles, and some soldiers herded Prospero and his three-year old daughter Miranda onto a vessel that even I could tell would sink when the first high wave struck it. We went back sobered. I had never thought my father capable of such treachery.
Time rolled on. When I reached age 25, Father and I got in an acrimonious quarrel where he told me I needed to either marry or enter a convent; that my being unmarried and unattached constituted a scandal.
I scoffed at him. “Scandal? I hid in the rocks the night you and Antonio sent Prospero and this poor little girl out on a rotten boat on a stormy night so they would die! Don’t lecture me about scandal!”
I should not have said that.
Father faced a dilemma. He could not kill his own daughter. I told him that if he put me in a convent, I would convert to Lutheranism. A few weeks later, he announced that he had brokered a marriage for me with Sulaimon, King of Tunis. Before I could protest, he put me in a sealed carriage, delivered me to a seaport and, accompanied by an entourage that included my brother, the detestable Duke of Milan, and a selection of others, and we sailed across the Mediterranean to Tunis, where I was married to the Tunisian king. None of my serving maidens accompanied me.
I don’t want to create any negative impressions. Sulaimon dazzled me with his beauty, strength, and courtesy. Tall, a warrior, with lovely black skin, piercing eyes, and a noble demeanor, he struck me as a better match than any of the scheming nobles who stood as possibilities in my homeland. I delivered three strong children—all boys and potential heirs, which everyone applauded. I loved Sulaimon and cherished his embrace. He came to my bedchamber frequently and did not take another wife all the years we were together. Sulaimon allowed me to practice my religion and did not force me to convert to Islam. I had serving maidens who were Jewish, Christian, and Muslim.
Not everything went smoothly. Some of the men on the Council of Elders who advised the king thought having an unbeliever in the palace did not bode well. They said I had surrounded myself with unbelievers and alleged that I meant to mislead the young women of the city so they would abandon their Muslim faith. My husband did not want to antagonize the Council, so he had his Grand Vizier appoint a ‘guardian’ for me.
I expected an older woman. Caliana, my age, an incredibly beautiful woman but stern and severe, became this guardian. She stayed near me all day. At night she slept in a chamber adjacent to mine. When the weather turned cold, she was my bedfellow. Everywhere I went, she accompanied me like my shadow—a constant presence in my life. Caliana had taken some sort of vow and could not marry until her vow ended four years from when she first joined my entourage. Until that time, she devoted all of her vigilant energy to keeping an eye on me. She belonged to a sect of Islam that pursued a fanatical interpretation of the faith and enforced severe asceticism on its followers. Her sour milk expression and judgmental silence could dampen even the most joyous celebration or excursion.
One morning I finished nursing my youngest son, Amahl, left him with an attendant, spent some time with my other two boys, and got ready to go riding by the sea. We cantered to a grove of trees where a spring poured water into the ocean, dismounted, and let our horses drink. It was then that we saw the bakahasten. It walked out of the trees, a magnificent white horse. We marveled at its beauty, but most of all Caliana seemed taken by it. She gaped as it stood in the fog, tossing its head, its long white mane shaking, its body shining in the grey dimness. Almost as if in a trance, she walked toward it. Everyone wanted to tell to her to stop, but my maidens were afraid of her, the guards did not feel that they should speak to her, and I did not quite understand what was going on. Caliana liked to ride—it was one of the few things she liked to do, but anyone knows you must be careful around a wild horse. This was a stallion, ferocious-looking, huge, and formidable. She walked toward him as if in a trance. Later I found out the cult to which she belonged made much of the Prophet’s ascent into heaven on his horse. They taught that such a horse would appear to carry the most righteous of their followers to Paradise. Caliana thought that she had been chosen, I suppose, maybe believing that she would ascend to heaven as the Prophet did.
I knew about bakahasten, brook horses, through the stories Cynthia’s mother had told me. They were water spirits, could change their shapes, and seemed to favor transforming into the shape of a horse. I wanted to cry out and warn Caliana, but by the time I realized what was happening she had pulled up her skirts and leapt on to the horse’s back.
The animal reared, bolted, and headed off at a sprint toward the seashore. My maidens cried out in horror. The soldiers mounted up and gave chase, but they had barely gotten into the saddle when the creature plunged into the water. Caliana screamed and tried to leap off its back. I knew, from what Cynthia had told me, that she would not be able to free herself and that the bakahasten would plunge her into the depths and drown her. After only a moment, her head and the horse’s head vanished beneath the slate-colored waves.
The women wailed and prayed. The soldiers took their horses into the sea as far as they safely could. I knew they would find no trace of her. The bakahasten had drowned Caliana. It would turn back into its form as a water spirit so as to be undetectable.
The day after we brought the news of Caliana’s death home, I dressed in sackcloth, put ashes on my head, and walked barefoot to a shrine her particular sect considered a sacred place. The 2 mile walk to the shrine exhausted me. Once there, I had the Muslim women among my attendants pray at the shrine. Back at the palace, I decreed three days of solemnity to commemorate her death, returned to my chamber, bathed, and fell into bed.
The next night Sulaimon and I dined at the home of the leader of the Jews in our city. That night I met Jacob. I also heard about the appearance of the Lotan. I asked what this might be.
“A sea creature,” said Abraham ben David, the leader of the Jewish community. “It is large and dangerous—the Hebrews call it Leviathan, the Greeks the Kraken. For centuries it has not been seen, but suddenly it has reappeared—very near to our shores.”
“Why would it appear after being gone for so many years?” my husband asked.
“Because of the magic of the Witch Sycorax,” replied a man far down the table where the lower-ranking people sat. All eyes turned to him. He looked to be 30 years or so, with sandy hair and a light beard. He dressed plainly but elegantly and did not seem reticent to speak despite his placement near the lower end of the table.
“Please explain,” said Sulaimon, overlooking the man’s speaking out of turn and intruding into the conversation of those who outranked him.
“On an island to the north lived a witch who for centuries cast her evil magic over our seas. She died, but the evil lived on until a magician named Prospero came to rule her island. He has gone now—happily returned to his homeland—but the evil of Sycorax, even though she died long ago, has asserted itself. Since Prospero’s magic no longer restrains the evil residing on the island—not to say the monsters Sycorax created—evil once again stalks the seas and, now, our shoreline.”
The man’s words sobered us. Abraham ben David brought in musicians and singers. Their performance put us back in a festive mode, and the party ended on an upbeat note.  We got to bed late. I spent the next day with the children. In the evening my husband and I met with some new British merchants who had applied for admission to Tunisian territory as traders. They seemed shaken and said they had seen a sea monster off in the distance as they passed the Kerkennah Islands.
This troubled Sulaimon greatly. I asked him why what the British trader said had upset him so much. He paused a long moment, looking up at the moon that shined through our window and cast its light in a white square onto the bed.
“I know of Sycorax. My father ruled Algiers and was the one who banished her.”
Sulaimon’s father had divided his kingdom between three sons. Sulaimon received Tunis, his brothers Tripoli and Algiers.
“She is dead, but now the evil things she created by her sorcery are coming to exact her revenge.”
“Why would they come here and not to Algiers or Tripoli?”
“For one, this city is closest to her island; and I am the oldest son.”
The next day, the creature attacked.
The palace overlooks the harbor. Our family was eating fruit on the cool of the roof and enjoying the beautiful weather when the creature reared up out the depths. I screamed, recovered, had the serving women take the children to a safe place, and watched with horror as the monster attacked our harbor. Huge and scaly, much like the descriptions I had read of dragons, with giant claws and rows of sharp teeth, it wound its way around an anchored ship, tightened its serpentine body, and broke the vessel to pieces. It dove again and surfaced, capsizing another vessel; then, with its long tail, demolished a section of the sea wall that protected our city from the bay waters.
People fled in terror. Our soldiers released arrows at it, but they had no effect. A citadel guards the harbor and is fitted out to fight against an invasion by sea. The men there activated catapults and ballista. Large stones moving at high velocity and huge arrows from the ballista hit and seemed to hurt the creature a little. One shaft from a ballista stuck in its side. It emitted a loud, high-pitched scream that hurt my ears, used its claws to extract the arrow, and slipped back into the sea. We waited. As if to show us we had hurt but not defeated it, it rose out of the water, crushed one more ship, and slipped away into the open water.
I went to my bedchamber, where all my maidens knelt and prayed for deliverance. I joined them. The city was in chaos. People fled in droves for the hills. Mosques, churches, and synagogues filled with suppliants pleading with the heavens to keep them safe. My husband met with his staff and worked far into the night to reinforce our defenses.
I went to his chamber, but he was asleep from exhaustion. Upset, I took Angela and Lenora, my Italian and English serving women, up on the rooftop to pray. I felt too upset to do so, told them to pray, and stared out at the sea. It sparkled with small waves beneath the moon. After a moment, I looked over at my women. They had fallen asleep. I heard a noise, turned, and saw Jacob ben Gaon-Abuha. I almost screamed, but he held up a hand and I could not open my mouth.
“Peace, Queen Claribel. I mean you no harm. I will free your tongue now.”
I could speak again. Rather than screaming, I kept my voice low and asked him what he wanted and how he could be so impudent as to intrude into the harem.
“I beg pardon. It is necessary. The British merchants who spoke with you told the truth. The Lotan is near. Even now it sleeps at the bottom of your harbor and will unleash its fury on the city when it awakes. You alone are able to stop it, my Queen.”
“I deem it improper for you to be here.”
“I came here by magic. I put the sleep on your serving maidens. The situation is dire.”
“And how can I help the situation?”
“You can meet with Sycorax.”
“My husband said she is dead.”
“Witches die but travel to other lives. Sycorax is alive again. She has a new life.”
“If the creatures she created are filled with her hatred for our kingdom, what does it matter that she has a new life? The creatures will still exact revenge. Does she remember the old life she led on the island?”
“She remembers all her lives. Perhaps you can persuade her to leave us in peace.”
“I? What could I possibly do to persuade her?”
“We think only the human mind has memory. Earth remembers too. The memories her island holds reside within her heart. She knows what Prospero knew, and Prospero knew that you and the English girl who was your friend saw him sent to exile and were aghast at your father’s treachery. She admires you for this.”
I gaped. When I could speak, I said, “She knows of me?”
“She was already dead when Prospero arrived. But, as I said, the island remembers and she hears its thoughts. And she can hear the thoughts of her son Caliban.”
“Was she not a wicked woman?”
“In her prior life, she was. Remember, though, she has received another life. She is a changed woman. The life she inherited has given her a mild spirit and a propensity to do good. You might persuade her to undo the magic of her past life. Our city would be spared. Your husband, and his brothers, would escape the revenge she sent out in her former life.”
“How can I find her?”
“I will take you to her. You must agree to the journey. It will be outside of time, so your maidens will be there sleeping.”
“I’ll come with you,” I answered, “but not alone. I will insist that my serving maidens accompany me. Please wake them.”
He gave me a look. I suppose I was being snippy, but I needed to show him I had a authority in the face of his magic. He waved a hand. Lenora and Angela awoke. I explained to them what had happened and said I wanted them to accompany me. Lenora knew Jacob and seemed respectful and a bit afraid of him. Angela, who was devout, detested anyone who trafficked in magic. Still, they agreed.
I thought Jacob would magically transport us to where Sycorax, in her new incarnation, dwelt, but we walked down from the rooftop, through the courtyard, out the front gate, and into the city. We passed innumerable guards who took no notice of us. The same thing happened as we walked the city streets to the harbor. None of the watchmen saw us; nor did the thieves and prostitutes who roam there in the dark hours. We walked to the docks, avoiding the ruined sections, and climbed into a boat docked at one end. Jacob rowed us into the moonlit bay. In only minutes we came upon an island so far from the city we could barely see the beacon lights burning on shore.
We disembarked, walked a short distance, and came to cave where I was told Sycorax dwelt.
“You must go in alone,” said Jacob. “Remember what is at stake. Some people in the city dislike you. They will attribute the appearance of the Lotan to your presence and seek to have you killed. Don’t underestimate their power. My people are often blamed for any disaster that befalls our land. It is to our advantage that the creature leave our shores. Go in now.”
“What will I say to her?”
“The prophecy is dark at this point. I don’t know. Trust your heart, as you always have. The words will come when your heart speaks.”
I walked into the cavern. It had a dry, sandy floor and dry rock walls; it was not damp and not filled with spiders and other vermin. I smelled wood smoke and saw a dim light burning and casting long, unsettling shadows. I turned a corner which opened to a much larger section with a taller stone ceiling. A small fire burned. Sycorax sat behind it.
I had expected a hideous old woman. Sailors spoke of Sycorax and said the evil inside her had twisted her body to the extent that she was bent double like a hoop and her appearance frightened even tough mariners who did not fear storms and waterspouts. But instead of such a sight, my eyes fell on a young woman who rested a chair of stone, beautiful in the blaze of the fire. Her skin glowed vivid blue as I had always imagined the skin of water nymphs in Greek legend to look. Long, black hair fell over her shoulders, framing her. She wore a simply cut garment and no jewelry. I hesitated a moment and then sank down on one knee.
“It isn’t every day that a Queen kneels before a penniless woman.”
“Your wealth in magic is great, Lady Sycorax. And if beauty were wealth, I would be a pauper in comparison to you.”
She laughed. I guessed that was good.
“You have a way with words, Queen Claribel. I wandered many years in the spaces between before I found the path to a new life. You’ve given me the first compliment in my fresh existence.”
“It will be the first of many, be assured.”
“And you want me to stop the Lotan from ravaging your city?”
“I do, my Lady. I know you seek justice and requital for the wrong done to you. My husband was only three years old when you were banished. Should the sons suffer for the sins of the father?”
“Jacob ben Gaon-Abuha brought you here. What you have said is written in the holy writings of his people, is it not?”
The nuns had taught me some of the Old Testament, and I remembered, though vaguely, their teaching that a father should not suffer for the sins of his son nor a son for the sins of his father but that every man should bear his own sin.
“He fears for the welfare of his people, Claribel, as you fear—rightly—for your own safety. Yet I cannot punish his father, so how is justice to be done?”
“Is punishment necessary?”
“For me it is. My spirit will not rest until punishment for what was done to me is meted out. Someone or something must pay for that crime. The odious nature of the deed flutters in my spirit and in my memory like a hateful bird. I will not be able to assume my new existence fully until the matter is taken care of.”
I hesitated, gathered my courage, and then spoke. “May the punishment fall upon me?”
She stared at me a moment and then laughed. “I forget that you are a Christian. And I suppose it could. Let’s say, yes. But I like you. I don’t want you destroyed. Why are you willing to take your husband’s place?”
“I don’t wish to perish—but I love him. I have given him three sons.”
“Your sons will carry on his name.”
“They are young. If he isn’t there to protect them, they will die at the hands of treacherous men who would take the throne for themselves.”
“Rise,” she ordered, “and look into the fire.”
I gazed down into the orange flames. Suddenly I saw myself lying on my bed. My eyes were bulging, my tongue protruding, a dark line encircled my neck. I had been strangled by assassins. I heard screaming and pleading. My serving women were being murdered. My husband had been killed by the Lotan. My sons, undoubtedly, were captive, if not already slain. The vision faded. I saw the fire again.
“You are correct in your assumption. Return to your city. Go out and stand on the dock when the sun appears. The Lotan will come. Go now. This is all I have to say to you.”
We returned. I did not feel like speaking. Sycorax had changed, but the law of retribution had not. Someone had to pay the price for what was done to her. It would be me.
By the time we arrived back home, it was nearly dawn. I went to my chamber, washed, prayed, and dressed in a simple garment. In the grey of pre-morning, I stole out of my bedchamber and into the courtyard. Lenora and Angela were there.
“You didn’t tell us what the witch said to you,” said Lenora, “but we know your spirit, Claribel. We will go by your side.”
“I won’t hear of it. Return to your rooms.”
“We have never disobeyed you,” said Angela. “But this is different. It would be unseemly for you to die unattended. Give us the honor of dying with you.”
I could see that they would not be persuaded. And what they said was true. If people saw me walking through the city alone (and not hidden by magic) they would be suspicious. Tears came to my eyes to think two beautiful young women would be willing to go with me and die in their virginity for the honor of my name. I nodded. The three of us walked out to the docks.
I took my stand on the part that jutted furthest out into sea. Lenora and Angela took up positions on either side of us. The people of Tunis were too afraid to go near the docks, but when they recognized me, hundreds of them surged down toward us. The sun broke the horizon. The waters of the bay began to boil. I gathered my courage. Lenora and Angela blenched with fear but stood still. I felt Lenora squeeze my hand. The sun rose higher. The waters churched and splashed, and we saw the head of the Lotan rise from the bay.
I prayed my death would be a quick one. I suppose my maidens were praying the same, but the Lotan did not lunge at us and swipe us off the dock and into its maw as I thought it would. We waited, hearts pounding, and saw its back, claws, and tail emerge out of the waves. I realized that it was floating—not swimming and not moving. It had no strength. It was dead. What we were seeing was its corpse.
Lenora collapsed. Angela and I caught her. By that time the townspeople had seen that the Lotan was not alive. They flocked to us, shouting that the monster was dead and I had killed it. I had saved the city. Physicians rushed to me and asked if I was alright. I felt faint. They cared for me until my husband appeared. His guards carried me back to the palace. Our sailors launched boats into the bay, snagged the Lotan with grappling hooks, and dragged it out to sea so the rotting of its body would not foul the waters of our harbor. I went to my bedchamber.
I told Sulaimon everything. We had no secrets. He said I had been wise. That night I had Lenora sleep with me. Her warmth and nearness were assuring. I woke in the early morning hours when a strange silence fell. I could hear no one breathe or stir. I sat up in bed and saw Sycorax, in all her beauty, standing beside me.
“My Lady,” I said quietly.
“You have done well. I said someone, or something, had to die. Creatures such as the Lotan are constructed of old passions and hatreds. It was time for it to go away. Retribution will come. Your kingdom will be conquered, but not in your lifetime or in the lifetime of your sons’ sons. Your place is secure.” She vanished. I heard Lenora’s quiet breathing. I closed my eyes, weary but reassured. The grace of the forbidden had opened doors for me in the past. Its magic had worked good for me again.
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David W. Landrum teaches Literature and Creative Writing at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His poetry has appeared in numerous publications, including Web Del Sol, The Barefoot Muse, WORM, riverrun, and many others.

1.28 Frithjof

Hollywood 1copyright 2015

Frithjof

a story by

hLamb Shepherd

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When I was in cosmetology school in Pensacola back in the mid-80’s, there was a Pensacola Jr. College student who came in early one morning before class to have his long black hair cut.
“Just give it a little trim,” he said as he pulled his faded green Army jacket closer to his thin frame, as if it were colder in the salon than in the chill outside.
I began to do as he asked.
“Those look sharp,” he said of my haircutting shears—the ones I had paid $100 for, which was astronomical for those times.
“They’re sharp alright. I cut myself pretty often. What’s your first class?”
“English Literature. I’m a freshman. I know I don’t really look like a freshman. That’s because I’m twenty-three. I fished for crab in Alaska for a few years. I thought it’d be fun. It was, and it wasn’t. It was hard. I’ll tell ya that much.”
“Sounds interesting,” I replied. I was envious. I had never done anything. I had never been anywhere. My experiences in life were relegated to interesting conversations with students attending Pensacola Jr. College.
“You into Punk Rock?” he asked.
“Oh yeah,” I replied less hardily than I felt. My heart thrilled. The Punk subculture meant everything to me. Angry, aggressive middle-class kids screaming that their lives had been ruined by this and that and the other, mainly their parents. Today, it all seems so silly. Then, it was what I lived for… while refusing to be a part of the burgeoning Punk scene in Pensacola.
“You act like a Punk Rocker,” he said. “You’re kinda tough and cool at the same time. You’re kinda… scary.”
I felt empowered. It didn’t take much to make me swell with pride in the browbeaten days of my youth. I mean, this little, wiry, dark-haired guy who could pass for a seasoned AWOL soldier or a well-traveled European was saying that I—a boy found mostly in a world of poetry and dreams—was scary.
“We’re the same age,” I said as I undid the nylon cape from around him and shook off the cut hairs.
“I guess you’re getting a late start in life too. Thanks for the haircut. It looks great. My name’s Frithjof. It’s Norse.” He handed me two dollars as a tip and stepped out the door into the cold, unbuttoning his jacket as he went.
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Two days later Frithjof came back in. His hair was the same length as it had been before I cut it. This time as I trimmed his locks, the conversation was a bit more surreal.
“You ever fished for albermagon in Pensacola Bay?” he asked me.
“What are albermagon?”
“A kind of fish that taste a little like catfish, but not really.”
“I like friend oysters, but that’s about it for fried seafood.”
“Albermagon taste like oysters too,” he added. “You ever lived in Los Angeles?”
“No,” I replied.
“You will,” he said matter-of-factly.
“What do you mean by that, Frithjof?”
“Oh, nothing really. Only that one day soon you’re going to be living in Hollywood, California. That’s all I meant.”
“That is a really strange thing to say.” I couldn’t help but laugh. Frithjof laughed along with me, and said nothing more on the subject. By this time I was fairly used to very strange people saying really odd things. It was Pensacola after all. A place that, to this day, I really despise, but that’s neither here nor there when it comes to the absolutely bizarre conversations one can have with seemingly normal people. There’s something in the air… or the water.
As I shook the thin nylon cape out again, Frithjof tipped me two dollars, as he had done the time before, unbuttoned his Army coat and walked out into the cold January morning.
“Lamb?”
“Yeah?” I turned to the voice of one of my cosmetology classmates. It was Susanna.
“Lamb, that guy you just cut… he came in three times last week. And every time, his hair was the same length. I cut it all three times.”
“Really?” I replied. “That’s just weird.”
“You’re tellin’ me.”
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The next morning Frithjof came back in for another haircut. His hair was halfway down his back. I felt very nervous.
“Haircut?” he said. “You can take most of it off this time. Just leave me a long bang in the front. That’ll look cool.”
“Sure you don’t want a tiger stripe mohawk?” I asked him.
“Can we do that?” His eyes grew wide with childlike glee.
“Sure!” I was excited to do something different than permanent waves and hair trims. “Let’s get your mohawk cut first, then we’ll mix up the bleach and get it lookin’ cool!”
I cut Frithjof’s hair the way he wanted it, and then left him there for a few minutes while I went to mix up the bleach. But when I returned, he was gone.
He never came back to the salon again.
Two years later I saw him walking down Hollywood Boulevard. Yes, the one in California. I wanted to say something, but he was too far away, and I didn’t want to yell. I was late for work anyway.
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Lamb Shepherd is a writer who lives in Hollywood. Sometimes, anyway.

1.27 Noose, Dead Fruit

dead leavescopyright 2016

Noose, Dead Fruit

a story by

Nate Caines

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There’s a hangman in the wind tonight. They left him hanging in an old oak tree. Whistling in the dead night air. Whistling an earthy lullaby. As the wind catches gaps. In his broken teeth. The old tree cradles him. As a mother holds her plague child. Shaking and rustling.
The orange and brown leaves still dead from winter. Left hanging on an old oak tree. Like executed men on stem nooses. Flies rest to the sounds of music. With full bellies. Finding perch to feast before. Taking flight. And beating their paper thin membrane wings together. The world moves differently through the many colored eyes. Of flies. Decrepit flesh swaying in the cold spring night.
Storms patrol sectors on the planes. Lumbering giants. Taking slow gargantuan steps across the sky. Inclement guardians, their. Purpose comes from the direction of wind.
Lighting explodes silently. Painting surreal and without purpose. Pale eyes. Stare without hesitation or purpose. Onto oblivion. And over the planes of beasts.
Thunder crackles to life. In an artillery-like barrage of percussion. Beating the drums of war. Along to the hangman’s whistle. Calling home the night.
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Nate Caines was born and raised in Chicago, but grew up mostly in the woods. After high school he ran away to various mountains, where he still dwells. Previous to this story, he was unpublished in any field.

1.26 The Haunted Palace

8ab7f640-da39-0132-ceb1-0e01949ad350+

The Haunted Palace

a story by

Edgar Allan Poe

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In the greenest of our valleys
By good angels tenanted,
Once a fair and stately palace–
Radiant palace- reared its head.
In the monarch Thought’s dominion–
It stood there!
Never seraph spread a pinion
Over fabric half so fair!
Banners yellow, glorious, golden,
On its roof did float and flow,
(This–all this–was in the olden
Time long ago,)
And every gentle air that dallied,
In that sweet day,
Along the ramparts plumed and pallid,
A winged odor went away.
Wanderers in that happy valley,
Through two luminous windows, saw
Spirits moving musically,
To a lute’s well-tuned law,
Round about a throne where, sitting
(Porphyrogene!)
In state his glory well-befitting,
The ruler of the realm was seen.
And all with pearl and ruby glowing
Was the fair palace door,
Through which came flowing, flowing, flowing,
And sparkling evermore,
A troop of Echoes, whose sweet duty
Was but to sing,
In voices of surpassing beauty,
The wit and wisdom of their king.
But evil things, in robes of sorrow,
Assailed the monarch’s high estate.
(Ah, let us mourn!–for never morrow
Shall dawn upon him desolate!)
And round about his home the glory
That blushed and bloomed,
Is but a dim-remembered story
Of the old time entombed.
And travellers, now, within that valley,
Through the red-litten windows see
Vast forms, that move fantastically
To a discordant melody,
While, like a ghastly rapid river,
Through the pale door
A hideous throng rush out forever
And laugh–but smile no more.

1.25 New Family

tumblr_mr13tbNzVV1r0kdxho1_500

copyright 2015

New Family

a story by

Jack Somers

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The new family has been living in my house now for five months. I like them better than the old family. They don’t snap at each other or argue about money like the old family did. They’re nicer, happier, warmer people. There are three of them: John, Lisa, and Maggie. They have a dog, too—a Border Collie named Tuxedo. I gather from their dinner conversations that John works at a bank. He is gone from six in the morning until six at night almost every day, and when he comes home, he always looks dead tired. He is never unpleasant,though. He always kisses Lisa and asks her how her day was. He picks up Maggie, twirls her around, and tickles her. He’s a good dad.  
Lisa stays home with Maggie. She spends most days on the couch in the den, drinking coffee out of a glass mug, watching television, needlepointing pictures of foxes and rabbits in Victorian clothing. She isn’t a hovering mother, but she isn’t inattentive either. A few times a day, she puts down her needlepoint and does a puzzle with Maggie. Or the two of them sit at the dining room table and draw with crayons.
Maggie loves to draw, and she’s quite good for a four year old. She doesn’t just draw stick figures. Her crayon people have discernible features—eyes and noses, mouths and teeth, fingers and toes. They have bodies with proportional legs and arms. Her favorite subjects to draw are her mom and dad. She always draws her mom in a pink dress and her dad in his work clothes—a gray suit and tie. She draws me, too. She draws me in a white dress. With long brown hair and blue eyes. I guess it looks like me. I don’t exactly remember what I look like to be honest. I haven’t seen myself for a long time. I can’t see myself in mirrors anymore. I wish I could.
When John and Lisa ask Maggie who the lady in the white dress is, she says it’s her friend Mary. My name is actually Marianne, but Mary is close enough. I’ve stopped trying to correct her. John and Lisa think I’m Maggie’s imaginary friend. Lisa thinks Maggie invented me because she doesn’t have any friends her own age yet, and she’s lonely. She’s been pushing John particularly hard the past few weeks to enroll Maggie in preschool. She thinks that’s the solution to the problem. John isn’t as concerned about Maggie being lonely. He says Maggie is just creative. He says she would probably invent imaginary friends even if she had a dozen real friends.
Neither John nor Lisa has ever considered the possibility that I might not be imaginary. At least they’ve never admitted to considering it. I can’t blame them. They can’t see me or hear me or sense me in any way. Only Maggie can. Maggie and Tuxedo. When they first moved in, Tuxedo would bark his head off whenever I came around, but he’s gotten used to me. He doesn’t even flinch when he sees me now. He knows I’m not a threat. He knows I mean well.
Maggie has fantastic taste in movies. She likes Meet Me in St. Louis and Easter Parade and The Wizard of Oz just like I did when I was a little girl. She knows all of the words to “Over the Rainbow,” and she can sing it from beginning to end without hitting one bum note. She has beautiful little voice—clear and high and lilting, like a flute. If she doesn’t become an artist when she grows up, I could see her becoming a singer. Maybe she’ll be the next Judy Garland. I think she has the talent. I wanted to be Judy Garland when I was a little girl, but I could never carry a tune. You can’t really teach yourself to be a good singer. You either are or you aren’t.
Friday night is always “date night” for John and Lisa. They go out to dinner or a movie, and Lisa’s mother, Anne, comes over to watch Maggie. Anne is a sweet old lady, but she spoils Maggie like you wouldn’t believe. Each time she comes over, she brings Maggie a new gift—a toy or a dress or a game of some kind. Most of Maggie’s toys and clothes come from Anne. Lisa and John get Maggie toys and clothes, too, but they can’t compete with Anne. Lisa has told Anne on several occasions to stop buying so much stuff for Maggie, but Anne can’t be stopped. “I’m a rich old lady, and she’s my only grandchild,” she always says to Lisa. “Let me have a little fun before I die.”
The way Anne talks, you’d think she was going to die tomorrow. I think she’s probably got at least ten more years in her. She’s pretty spry for a seventy-year-old. She turned seventy just last week. John and Lisa threw a party for her at the house. About twenty people came over—an assortment of aunts, uncles, and cousins. All of them sidled up to Anne at some point in the evening and quietly assured her that she didn’t look anywhere near seventy, which is true. She doesn’t. She still has thick dark hair and a nice slim figure, and her face isn’t nearly as lined or eroded as the faces of some seventy-year-olds you see. I would be eighty this year. I shudder to think about what I would look like. My grandmother looked about a hundred when she was seventy. There are some benefits to dying young. I wish I could have lived a little longer, though. Nineteen is too young.
Sometimes I get mad when I think about all that I missed. I wish I could have gotten married. I wish I could have been a mother. I wish I could have spent more time with my parents. I miss my parents very much. They were both marvelous people. My father was a smiling, affable Irishman who made friends easily and told the most delightful stories about his childhood in Donegal. My mother was a quiet, dark-haired woman from a respectable middle-class Italian family. She loved to read poetry and play the piano. Many a Sunday afternoon I spent lounging on the living room sofa while she played Liszt and Debussy, Chopin and Mozart. She had perfect time and exquisite control over the instrument. She tried to teach me to play, but I didn’t have the patience for it. Like my father, if I wasn’t good at something right away, I gave up. My mother was all patience—patience and kindness.
I don’t know why my parents aren’t here now. I don’t know why it’s just me in this house. I don’t have any unfinished business. I don’t have any interest in haunting anybody or chasing anybody out. If I could get out of here, I would. But every time I move toward the door, it pulls away from me. I can never reach it. I’ve stopped trying. Maybe I’ll be here forever. It’s a sad thought. At least I have Maggie.
I hope Maggie doesn’t stop seeing me, but she probably will. It’s just a matter of time. No teenagers or adults have ever been able to see me. The Thompson’s little boy, Jeremy, stopped seeing me when he was about six. I didn’t mind, though. I didn’t much enjoy talking to him. He was a cruel child—always throwing the cat down the stairs and breaking his mother’s dishes just to rile her up. He’s probably in prison now—if he’s even still alive. I will definitely mind when Maggie stops seeing me. She’s such a sweet girl. She has such a good heart. I’d like to think that if I’d been lucky enough to have a girl of my own, she would have been like Maggie.
Nights are the hardest—when it’s quiet and dark and there’s no conversation or activity to keep my mind off myself, off my situation. I stay in Maggie’s room. She knows I’m there, and she always says, “Goodnight, Mary,” after Lisa turns out the light and leaves. I don’t sleep. I don’t think I can sleep. But I wouldn’t even if I could. I like to keep watch over Maggie. I feel like I’m protecting her. I’m not, of course. If there were any threat—an intruder, a fire—there is nothing I could do to save her. Still, I feel like she’s safer when I’m there, as if my good will, my affection, my love were a sort of shield. I wish I could always be with her, but I know that can’t be. She’ll grow up. She’ll leave home. She’ll meet a man and have kids. She’ll do great things in the world. And that is as it should be. I hope she has a happy, productive life. And I hope she lives a long, long time. 
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Jack Somers earned his BA from Georgetown University in 2004 and his MAT from Brown University in 2006. For the past nine years, he has taught English at an independent high school in Cleveland. He lives in Cleveland with his wife and two children. Recently, he completed his first novel, Parnell’s Prime.The novel is available now on Amazon.You can learn more about the novel and Jack at http://www.parnellsprime.com

1.24 The Beresford Ghost

a17

copyright 2015

The Beresford Ghost

 a true story by

Andrew Lang

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“There is at Curraghmore, the seat of Lord Waterford, in Ireland, a manuscript account of the tale, such as it was originally received and implicitly believed in by the children and grandchildren of the lady to whom Lord Tyrone is supposed to have made the supernatural appearance after death. The account was written by Lady Betty Cobbe, the youngest daughter of Marcus, Earl of Tyrone, and granddaughter of Nicola S., Lady Beresford. She lived to a good old age, in full use of all her faculties, both of body and mind. I can myself remember her, for when a boy I passed through Bath on a journey with my mother, and we went to her house there, and had luncheon. She appeared to my juvenile imagination a very appropriate person to revise and transmit such a tale, and fully adapted to do ample justice to her subject-matter. It never has been doubted in the family that she received the full particulars in early life, and that she heard the circumstances, such as they were believed to have occurred, from the nearest relatives of the two persons, the supposed actors in this mysterious interview, viz., from her own father, Lord Tyrone, who died in 1763, and from her aunt, Lady Riverston, who died in 1763 also.
“These two were both with their mother, Lady Beresford, on the day of her decease, and they, without assistance or witness, took off from their parent’s wrist the black bandage which she had always worn on all occasions and times, even at Court, as some very old persons who lived well into the eighteenth century testified, having received their information from eyewitnesses of the fact. There was an oil painting of this lady in Tyrone House, Dublin, representing her with a black ribbon bound round her wrist. This portrait disappeared in an unaccountable manner. It used to hang in one of the drawing-rooms in that mansion, with other family pictures. When Henry, Marquis of Waterford, sold the old town residence of the family and its grounds to the Government as the site of the Education Board, he directed Mr. Watkins, a dealer in pictures, and a man of considerable knowledge in works of art and virtue, to collect the pictures, etc., etc., which were best adapted for removal to Curraghmore. Mr. Watkins especially picked out this portrait, not only as a good work of art, but as one which, from its associations, deserved particular care and notice. When, however, the lot arrived at Curraghmore and was unpacked, no such picture was found; and though Mr. Watkins took great pains and exerted himself to the utmost to trace what had become of it, to this day (nearly forty years), not a hint of its existence has been received or heard of.
“John le Poer, Lord Decies, was the eldest son of Richard, Earl of Tyrone, and of Lady Dorothy Annesley, daughter of Arthur, Earl of Anglesey. He was born 1665, succeeded his father 1690, and died 14th October, 1693. He became Lord Tyrone at his father’s death, and is the ‘ghost’ of the story.
“Nicola Sophie Hamilton was the second and youngest daughter and co-heiress of Hugh, Lord Glenawley, who was also Baron Lunge in Sweden. Being a zealous Royalist, he had, together with his father, migrated to that country in 1643, and returned from it at the Restoration. He was of a good old family, and held considerable landed property in the county Tyrone, near Ballygawley. He died there in 1679. His eldest daughter and co-heiress, Arabella Susanna, married, in 1683, Sir John Macgill, of Gill Hall, in the county Down.
“Nicola S. (the second daughter) was born in 1666, and married Sir Tristram Beresford in 1687. Between that and 1693 two daughters were born, but no son to inherit the ample landed estates of his father, who most anxiously wished and hoped for an heir. It was under these circumstances, and at this period, that the manuscripts state that Lord Tyrone made his appearance after death; and all the versions of the story, without variation, attribute the same cause and reason, viz., a solemn promise mutually interchanged in early life between John le Poer, then Lord Decies, afterwards Lord Tyrone, and Nicola S. Hamilton, that whichever of the two died the first, should, if permitted, appear to the survivor for the object of declaring the approval or rejection by the Deity of the revealed religion as generally acknowledged: of which the departed one must be fully cognizant, but of which they both had in their youth entertained unfortunate doubts.
“In the month of October, 1693, Sir Tristram and Lady Beresford went on a visit to her sister, Lady Macgill, at Gill Hall, now the seat of Lord Clanwilliam, whose grandmother was eventually the heiress of Sir J. Macgill’s property. One morning Sir Tristram rose early, leaving Lady Beresford asleep, and went out for a walk before breakfast. When his wife joined the table very late, her appearance and the embarrassment of her manner attracted general attention, especially that of her husband. He made anxious inquiries as to her health, and asked her apart what had occurred to her wrist, which was tied up with black ribbon tightly bound round it. She earnestly entreated him not to inquire more then, or thereafter, as to the cause of her wearing or continuing afterwards to wear that ribbon; ‘for,’ she added, ‘you will never see me without it’. He replied, ‘Since you urge it so vehemently, I promise you not to inquire more about it’.
“After completing her hurried breakfast she made anxious inquiries as to whether the post had yet arrived. It had not yet come in; and Sir Tristram asked: ‘Why are you so particularly eager about letters to-day?’  ‘Because I expect to hear of Lord Tyrone’s death, which took place on Tuesday.’  ‘Well,’ remarked Sir Tristram, ‘I never should have put you down for a superstitious person; but I suppose that some idle dream has disturbed you.’  Shortly after, the servant brought in the letters; one was sealed with black wax. ‘It is as I expected,’ she cries; ‘he is dead.’  The letter was from Lord Tyrone’s steward to inform them that his master had died in Dublin, on Tuesday, 14th October, at 4 p.m. Sir Tristram endeavoured to console her, and begged her to restrain her grief, when she assured him that she felt relieved and easier now that she knew the actual fact. She added, ‘I can now give you a most satisfactory piece of intelligence, viz., that I am with child, and that it will be a boy’. A son was born in the following July. Sir Tristram survived its birth little more than six years. After his death Lady Beresford continued to reside with her young family at his place in the county of Derry, and seldom went from home. She hardly mingled with any neighbours or friends, excepting with Mr. and Mrs. Jackson, of Coleraine. He was the principal personage in that town, and was, by his mother, a near relative of Sir Tristram. His wife was the daughter of Robert Gorges, LL.D. (a gentleman of good old English family, and possessed of a considerable estate in the county Meath), by Jane Loftus, daughter of Sir Adam Loftus, of Rathfarnham, and sister of Lord Lisburn. They had an only son, Richard Gorges, who was in the army, and became a general officer very early in life. With the Jacksons Lady Beresford maintained a constant communication and lived on the most intimate terms, while she seemed determined to eschew all other society and to remain in her chosen retirement.
“At the conclusion of three years thus passed, one luckless day “Young Gorges” most vehemently professed his passion for her, and solicited her hand, urging his suit in a most passionate appeal, which was evidently not displeasing to the fair widow, and which, unfortunately for her, was successful. They were married in 1704. One son and two daughters were born to them, when his abandoned and dissolute conduct forced her to seek and to obtain a separation. After this had continued for four years, General Gorges pretended extreme penitence for his past misdeeds, and with the most solemn promises of amendment induced his wife to live with him again, and she became the mother of a second son. The day month after her confinement happened to be her birthday, and having recovered and feeling herself equal to some exertion, she sent for her son, Sir Marcus Beresford, then twenty years old, and her married daughter, Lady Riverston. She also invited Dr. King, the Archbishop of Dublin (who was an intimate friend), and an old clergyman who had christened her, and who had always kept up a most kindly intercourse with her during her whole life, to make up a small party to celebrate the day.
“In the early part of it Lady Beresford was engaged in a kindly conversation with her old friend the clergyman, and in the course of it said: ‘You know that I am forty-eight this day’. ‘No, indeed,’ he replied; ‘you are only forty-seven, for your mother had a dispute with me once on the very subject of your age, and I in consequence sent and consulted the registry, and can most confidently assert that you are only forty-seven this day.’  ‘You have signed my death-warrant, then,’ she cried; ‘leave me, I pray, for I have not much longer to live, but have many things of grave importance to settle before I die. Send my son and my daughter to me immediately.’  The clergyman did as he was bidden. He directed Sir Marcus and his sister to go instantly to their mother; and he sent to the archbishop and a few other friends to put them off from joining the birthday party.
“When her two children repaired to Lady Beresford, she thus addressed them: ‘I have something of deep importance to communicate to you, my dear children, before I die. You are no strangers to the intimacy and the affection which subsisted in early life between Lord Tyrone and myself. We were educated together when young, under the same roof, in the pernicious principles of Deism. Our real friends afterwards took every opportunity to convince us of our error, but their arguments were insufficient to overpower and uproot our infidelity, though they had the effect of shaking our confidence in it, and thus leaving us wavering between the two opinions. In this perplexing state of doubt we made a solemn promise one to the other, that whichever died first should, if permitted, appear to the other for the purpose of declaring what religion was the one acceptable to the Almighty. One night, years after this interchange of promises, I was sleeping with your father at Gill Hall, when I suddenly awoke and discovered Lord Tyrone sitting visibly by the side of the bed. I screamed out, and vainly endeavoured to rouse Sir Tristram. “Tell me,” I said, “Lord Tyrone, why and wherefore are you here at this time of the night?”  “Have you then forgotten our promise to each other, pledged in early life?  I died on Tuesday, at four o’clock. I have been permitted thus to appear in order to assure you that the revealed religion is the true and only one by which we can be saved. I am also suffered to inform you that you are with child, and will produce a son, who will marry my heiress; that Sir Tristram will not live long, when you will marry again, and you will die from the effects of childbirth in your forty-seventh year.”  I begged from him some convincing sign or proof so that when the morning came I might rely upon it, and feel satisfied that his appearance had been real, and that it was not the phantom of my imagination. He caused the hangings of the bed to be drawn in an unusual way and impossible manner through an iron hook. I still was not satisfied, when he wrote his signature in my pocket-book. I wanted, however, more substantial proof of his visit, when he laid his hand, which was cold as marble, on my wrist; the sinews shrunk up, the nerves withered at the touch. “Now,” he said, “let no mortal eye, while you live, ever see that wrist,” and vanished. While I was conversing with him my thoughts were calm, but as soon as he disappeared I felt chilled with horror and dismay, a cold sweat came over me, and I again endeavoured but vainly to awaken Sir Tristram; a flood of tears came to my relief, and I fell asleep.
“‘In the morning your father got up without disturbing me; he had not noticed anything extraordinary about me or the bed-hangings. When I did arise I found a long broom in the gallery outside the bedroom door, and with great difficulty I unhooked the curtain, fearing that the position of it might excite surprise and cause inquiry. I bound up my wrist with black ribbon before I went down to breakfast, where the agitation of my mind was too visible not to attract attention. Sir Tristram made many anxious inquiries as to my health, especially as to my sprained wrist, as he conceived mine to be. I begged him to drop all questions as to the bandage, even if I continued to adopt it for any length of time. He kindly promised me not to speak of it any more, and he kept his promise faithfully. You, my son, came into the world as predicted, and your father died six years after. I then determined to abandon society and its pleasures and not mingle again with the world, hoping to avoid the dreadful predictions as to my second marriage; but, alas! in the one family with which I held constant and friendly intercourse I met the man, whom I did not regard with perfect indifference. Though I struggled to conquer by every means the passion, I at length yielded to his solicitations, and in a fatal moment for my own peace I became his wife. In a few years his conduct fully justified my demand for a separation, and I fondly hoped to escape the fatal prophecy. Under the delusion that I had passed my forty-seventh birthday, I was prevailed upon to believe in his amendment, and to pardon him. I have, however, heard from undoubted authority that I am only forty-seven this day, and I know that I am about to die. I die, however, without the dread of death, fortified as I am by the sacred precepts of Christianity and upheld by its promises. When I am gone, I wish that you, my children, should unbind this black ribbon and alone behold my wrist before I am consigned to the grave.’
“She then requested to be left that she might lie down and compose herself, and her children quitted the apartment, having desired her attendant to watch her, and if any change came on to summon them to her bedside. In an hour the bell rang, and they hastened to the call, but all was over. The two children having ordered every one to retire, knelt down by the side of the bed, when Lady Riverston unbound the black ribbon and found the wrist exactly as Lady Beresford had described it—every nerve withered, every sinew shrunk.
“Her friend, the Archbishop, had had her buried in the Cathedral of St. Patrick, in Dublin, in the Earl of Cork’s tomb, where she now lies.”
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The writer now professes his disbelief in any spiritual presence, and explains his theory that Lady Beresford’s anxiety about Lord Tyrone deluded her by a vivid dream, during which she hurt her wrist.
Of all ghost stories the Tyrone, or Beresford Ghost, has most variants. Following Monsieur Hauréau, in the Journal des Savants, I have tracked the tale, the death compact, and the wound inflicted by the ghost on the hand, or wrist, or brow, of the seer, through Henry More, and Melanchthon, and a mediæval sermon by Eudes de Shirton, to William of Malmesbury, a range of 700 years. Mrs. Grant of Laggan has a rather recent case, and I have heard of another in the last ten years!  Calmet has a case in 1625, the spectre leaves
The sable score of fingers four
on a board of wood.
Now for a modern instance of a gang of ghosts with a purpose!
When I narrated the story which follows to an eminent moral philosopher, he remarked, at a given point, “Oh, the ghost spoke, did she?” and displayed scepticism. The evidence, however, left him, as it leaves me, at a standstill, not convinced, but agreeably perplexed. The ghosts here are truly old-fashioned.
My story is, and must probably remain, entirely devoid of proof, as far as any kind of ghostly influence is concerned. We find ghosts appearing, and imposing a certain course of action on a living witness, for definite purposes of their own. The course of action prescribed was undeniably pursued, and apparently the purpose of the ghosts was fulfilled, but what that purpose was their agent declines to state, and conjecture is hopelessly baffled.
The documents in the affair have been published by the Society for Psychical Research (Proceedings, vol. xi., p. 547), and are here used for reference. But I think the matter will be more intelligible if I narrate it exactly as it came under my own observation. The names of persons and places are all fictitious, and are the same as those used in the documents published by the S.P.R.

1.23 Stork Man

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copyright 2015

Stork Man

a story by

JD DeHart

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Our land was built in a swamp and gathered together, string by string and note by note, by the hard work of others. In some places, the swamp still exists, token reminders of how we cannot conquer, how our stubborn nature is sometimes refused. The Stork Man lives in those places, balanced on his high legs, walking with stealth. I do not know where he lives in daylight, but I know he stalks in the shade. His beak is his blade. I knew him by proxy when I watched a bright white bird fishing in the tide. The bird took spare notice of me, leaping from place to place, avoiding the buffeting of waves, flapping with purpose. When he saw prey, he furiously pecked with his needle beak, gathering unseen delicacies from the swiftly moving waters at his webbed feet. I imagine the Stork Man must work the same way, emerging at dusk’s last stand, dark plumage, gathering unfortunate wanderers into a small pile of rubble, attacking them with an edge of scalpel-like beak. It is best not to wander into the mire, it is best to leave those unconquered places to the lonely and mechanical violence of untamed and forceful nature.
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JD DeHart is a writer and teacher. His chapbook, The Truth About Snails, is available from Red Dashboard.

1.22 New York City, 35

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copyright 2015

New York City, 35

a story by

Jono Naito

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Fifty bows a day, even slight, was the average. My tips, come Christmas, were only five dollars to the day. That’s a dime a kowtow, I thought. Barely a cent a sin.
After a day’s work–you know, a day’s work my father never knew–I counted my blisters from standing so still. Two socks a foot, and even motionless at the door of 401 East 22nd they wore out; couldn’t afford those neither. Chipped pleasantries are what I got, between suitcases and missing keys. A call or two for stuck plumbing. I wasn’t a plumber, though father would have given me a singular hug for it. Honest work, he would have said, grimy and sweating beer, honest work means you do no wrong. That’s who he became after he fell from grace. Father called what I did being a toy poodle.
It was two that day, just two, that came up without shoes on their feet or food in their tennis ball bellies. Like the rest they begged for a restroom, or water not dripping from a hydrant. I could see them staring down a well and drooling until they died of dehydration and all they needed was a bit of rope and a bucket. So, my charity of twenty cents, I bowed for each of the lads and let them in. I knew, staring into that beady security camera lens, I had done wrong by some cheap but mighty perspective.
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Jono Naito is a recovering New Yorker and MFA student at Syracuse University. His work has appeared in Bard Lux Literary Magazine, Paper Darts Magazine, and the Eunoia Review, as well as online at jononaito.com.

1.21 My Neighbour

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copyright 2015

My Neighbour

a story by

Michelle D’costa

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We moved into the new building last year. We had to move because travelling was getting hectic for Aishu, our four year old. The school she attends now is just a walk away from our new house.
Anyway, our old home wasn’t that great, or maybe I already had my closure. A day before we moved, when our place was bare of all furniture, I moved my hand across the peeling wall paint like one would on a historic site. I retraced all the tiles with my eyes and said to myself, ‘It is time.’
I have never been a social person. Dhruv, my husband, chided me for not being friendly with the tenants in our new building. He would say, ‘Go, Shruthi, make friends. You won’t achieve anything just locking yourself in. Do you even know who lives next door? We need a friend or two here at least, right?’
I shrugged. ‘Well they are not very friendly either. The man next door seems to be very reserved.’
Seems to be, right? Why don’t you get to know him. I have seen him twice throwing trash out at night. He seems quite old.’
‘Why don’t you talk to him? Why me?’ I said as I flung the ball in his court.
And Dhruv did talk to the old man. After that, he raved about Krish. ‘Shruthi, that man has wisdom, I tell you. Even his silence does. We as youngsters blabber so much nonsense.’ He paused and then said, ‘Maybe our Aishu would have the grandfather she never had.’
When I raised my eyebrows at his last sentence, Dhruv shrugged and said, ‘Just saying. You may never know.’
And that’s when I started sending Aishu over to Krish’s house to play—a house bare of any photographs.
 
Aishu was playing on her rocking horse (the one that we moved temporarily into Krish’s room) when I asked him, ‘Why don’t you have any photographs?’
He smiled and said, ‘I’m not a narcissist.’
 
Krish always preferred to play with Aishu when I was around.
‘It’s okay. You can be with her for a little while longer. She likes it here. She just got her toys here to play. You won’t send her back so soon, right? I’ll just make a call and be back.’ I said once, wanting to get rid of Aishu if only for a few minutes.
Um… she would miss you. You can take her with you.’
I told this to Dhruv. He tutted. ‘Poor fellow. He knows how skeptical the world is now. But he should also know that we trust him. Aishu is like a granddaughter to him. Anyway, if he isn’t comfortable, let it be.’
I started talking to Ms. Kurana. She lived right below us, and always said, ‘Thank goodness you don’t have a boy! The noise they make!’ She had a brown Dalmatian that she loved to take on walks in the nearby park in the afternoons. I had made an effort to be her friend, so I felt that I should also make an effort to sustain it, right? I took a deep breath, tightened the lace on my running shoes before I could change my mind, and stuffed the aglet ends into my ankle socks to prevent them from sticking out. Then I stood up and smoothed out my track pants so that just a little of the lace’s bows were visible from below the hem of my pants.
In the park I was alone with Ms Kurana and Spotty her dog. I felt relieved to be away from Aishu for at least a little while. Dhruv had taken her shopping. I told Ms Kurana that I would run for about 15 minutes and then chat with her.
I loved the way the breeze zoomed past my ears, blowing stray hairs towards my face. But it tickled my cheeks, so I readjusted my hair band. My mind drifted. Aishu is growing up. Is it really okay to let her play with Krish? Of course it is! She is like his granddaughter! But then why is he so shifty when I think of leaving her alone with him for even a few seconds? I tried to concentrate on the circle that I had to make to reach Ms. Kurana. I spotted an old couple on a bench, the woman solving a crossword, her forehead crinkling in thought and her husband reading the paper with glasses almost slipping off his nose. How would Dhruv and I be in our old age? I tried to concentrate on the circle I had to make. This run turned out to be more depressing than relaxing. I reached Ms. Kurana. She had found something in the grass and was scrutinizing it with her arthritic fingers. Spotty sniffed something under the bark of a Gulmohar tree. ‘Can I ask you something?’ I was slightly panting.
‘Sure, dear.’ Ms. Kurana looked up from the thing in her hand. It looked like the tab of a soft drink can. I remembered that when I was a child I used to collect them and make bracelets out of them. Why was Ms. Kurana interested in it? Anyway, I asked her what was on my mind before I had got too distracted by the tab.
‘Do you know my neighbor Krish? Nice chap, isn’t he?’ I sat down beside her. I sat a little too close unintentionally and then readjusted myself so that a little space existed between us.
‘He doesn’t talk to anyone, does he? But I guess he is a harmless fellow,’ she replied, a little distracted because of the tab.
‘He seems really nice, but also a little awkward at times. He is really close with Aishu. Is he a bachelor?”
‘I guess so. No one knows much about him. But I heard that he had a daughter. I don’t know if it’s true, though.’ Ms. Kurana flung the tab away.
‘Oh,’ I replied, my eyes following the descent of the tab. It got lost in the grass.
‘See, you could ask him about his past. Maybe he will tell you. But be careful. If I were you, I wouldn’t ruin what I already have with him. He doesn’t talk to any kid for more than three seconds. So maybe he considers Aishu special.’ Ms. Kurana got up to walk Spotty.
On my way home her words repeated in my mind. If I were you, I wouldn’t ruin what I already have with him. I just had to ask Krish about his past. But I didn’t have to. He told me himself. That evening I found him in his favorite chair, crying.
‘I might die anytime, dear. I need to relieve this off my chest. I know I will lose Aishu, but I have to tell you. I have to tell someone.’
I caressed his hand. My fingers ran over his swollen veins like a car over bumps in the road.
‘I didn’t mean to do it. I really didn’t, I just had to. I don’t know what came over me. I and my daughter were vacationing in Shimla. We had so much fun. She always wanted to make a snowman on her own, and she did. We did. That was our last happy memory together. The day we were about to leave for home, a blizzard stranded us in a small abandoned house. We were left like that for days. No one came to help us. We were stranded. She died. And I didn’t know what to do. I was starving. I was losing my mind. No one else was near us. It was just me and her… and she was dead.’ He gulped.
My fingers stopped caressing Krish. I withdrew from him, dreading what was about to come.
‘When I did it, I was numb. It was all so surreal. And after it was done, I felt like a monster! I thought of killing myself. But then my act would have gone in vain. I had, after all, done it to survive, right? A man can do anything to survive. Even eat his own daughter? Only I didn’t know that this man could be me. Before that day, I had thought she was the only reason I was alive in this cruel world. And, that turned out to be true, right? I am here now because of her.’
I got up and quickly ran out of his apartment. ‘Aishu! Aishu!’
I ran into our flat and locked the door hoping that would lock the horrific revelation out.
I found Aishu on our bed, playing with her doll. I sighed in relief.
 
I didn’t tell anyone about it.
I didn’t want it to ruin what we already had with Krish.
I found him dead in his chair the next day.
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Michelle D’costa is published in The Bombay Literary Magazine, The Bactrian Room, Hackwriters International Magazine, Big River Poetry Review, eFiction India, and The Bombay Review among many others. She is currently a prose reader at The Stardust Gazette. A huge fan of R.L. Stine, as a kid she never thought she would also be known as a dark-lit writer.

1.20 The Lily People

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copyright 2015

The Lily People

a story by

Scáth Beorh

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Nollaig loved to go alone into the hill country near her home—though not too far up, in case she should be hurt and no one would be able to find her. Her favorite place was where a swift brown brook flowed through a lush wood of deep green oak and ash. Not far from the brook stood three large standing stones, and also the stone temple ruin of an ancient people who had gone before. The day after Nollaig was told that she and her brother would not be allowed to travel with the shepherd Nial and his friendly companion Focal (and maybe even the funny little man called Yng), she longed to be alone in her secret place, and so she went.
On this day the sun shone with an unusual brightness, but Nollaig didn’t mind, for with the brightness also came a wonderful warmth that went straight to her bones and made her feel profoundly alive. Nollaig’s mother Banmaith, daughter of a renowned teacher from Baile Átha Cliath, had taught her how to read and write. So, when she went alone to this quiet place or that, she enjoyed bringing things to read. Sometimes she brought ink, quill, and paper. This day she brought an old manuscript. It told only part of a story about a brother and sister who met an ancient woman, and then, not long after this time, the sister drowned and saw wondrous things below the waves.
 
The air lay heavy with death. A wind moved like mercury through the air and over the land that seemed to Esma as if it had never been alive. All appeared grey, and fruitless, and filled with hopelessness.
‘We are children of twilight,’ said Esma’s brother Grimbold as he tossed a fist-sized stone into a dull field of rocks and weeds. ‘How can we sing here when the skies are brass?’
‘Then let us sing hymns of other places,’ Esma said. “Let us make psalms of bright groves where tall ones wander, touching with their strong fingers every note as they search for sovereignty in our joyful requiem.’
 
As Nollaig sat with her back against an olden oak, she felt an overwhelming need to weep, and so she did. She felt her heart stricken as if someone had touched it… yes, with strong fingers; and in her weeping she began to sing, and to pray, and then to lift her hands in wordless praise.
Presently, in the shade made by myriad leaves, figures like shadows began to emerge from fallen foliage and come toward Nollaig. When she opened her eyes, all around her stood a strange people with skin as white as lilies-of-the-valley. At first she thought they all might be stricken with leprosy, but seeing that nothing of them was deformed, she wondered. They smiled at her, these odd people, yet said not a word. Lily People, Nollaig thought, and this is what she felt she should call them.
“Good morning, strangers.”
No one answered her. Instead, they all turned away and gathered around the temple ruin, their white robes billowing like clouds in a morning breeze.
Nollaig knit her brows. “Curious.” She lay her book aside and rose to her feet. One of the Lily People saw her stand, broke away from the circle, and walked toward her.
“Torn Wrist,” said the woman, for Nollaig had suffered an accident once where her hand had been utterly severed from her wrist, and then miraculously healed by the shepherd Nial. “Why do you come to this place? Would you have us teach you? Is it the Ðaioiӕ tongue and its meanings you seek to learn? We will teach this language to you, if you will know it.”
Nollaig looked at the scar on her arm. “My name is not Torn Wrist. My name is Moiré Ní Cumhach, baptized as Nollaig. Who are you?”
The woman’s champagne eyes glazed over as if she were suddenly ill. She spoke nothing in reply.
“Are you ill?”
No reply.
“I say, who are you? Answer me, for I have told you my name. You should answer me, if you would be kind.”
The woman shielded her eyes with her long, pale fingers. “I… am Neavglana. We… are called the Lost Ones. Please. Remove your… heart. It shines… too brightly….”
Nollaig reached into her dress and took hold of her heart. She closed her eyes. Something was amiss. Something abnormal. She looked past the white woman standing in front of her. The other Lily People—and there was a score of them—all stared at her, their eyes dim with sickness, their bodies in various poses of weakness. Some leaned over on sturdy staves, others crouched and held their bellies, others knelt with their arms crossed tightly over one another. One—a man—rested on his hands and knees as if he needed to wretch. “Remove your heart!’ He began to weep. “It be… bright! It… burns!
It was as if Nollaig was now in a dream. She thought that she should be terrified of these white-robed Lily People, terrified of their frightened expressions, terrified of their moans and screams coming first like a trickle and now like a flood.
Notwithstanding, she pushed her fingers beneath her skin and below her ribs. She took hold of her heart, felt it beating, felt the warmth of her flowing blood. She wrapped her hand around it and gave a little tug. It broke free and surrendered to her. She pulled it from her breast and held it in both hands, wondering at its beauty—amazed that it seemed to be on fire, yet it did not burn.
A woman who knelt in the long, swaying grass spoke. “She removes her heart… as we have asked.”
“No!” said a man who leaned on his staff, the only thing keeping him upright. “She takes out her heart… not for us. Another hand… guides her. She removes it… not to destroy it… but to defeat us! The spirit who guides her knows… it knows we…”
“It knows!” cried an anguished woman, her eyes covered with her hood. “The spirit… knows we speak… the Ðaioiӕ tongue!”
Nollaig no longer knew that she stood in the company of the Lily People. She knew only one thing. She knew that the beauty cupped in her hands was more precious to her touch than the gentlest lamb, and that its scent made burning myrrh smell like burning paper.
“Hold it close, hold it dear, for you will not have it for long,” whispered a sweet voice in Nollaig’s ear.
“No!” The young shepherdess began to weep. She knew this could not be true, yet the voice was so clear, so beautiful, like that of an angel. “I… know… I know that you are lying to me.”
The Lily People began to wail as if they were a chorus of singers trapped in unquenchable flames. They could not escape, though they tried. They rolled and writhed. They reached out for Nollaig, beckoning for her to help them, their faces contorted in agony.
Nollaig knew that it was right to place her heart back into her body, and she did so, but the celestial warmth that flowed around and through her did not cease. Her action did not lessen the pain of the Lily People. Rather, they thrashed about with even more violence, for now the girl’s heart was where it had been before she removed it—in its holy temple. The screams of the unclean pale folk were piteous to hear, but a peculiar joy overwhelmed Nollaig so that her thoughts were captive to the gift of her fiery heart. She heard nothing at all now except the sound of waves rolling onto a far distant shore.
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Scáth Beorh is a writer who works in a variety of genres, and is also the acquisitions editor for Beorh Weekly.

1.19 In the Valley of the Shadow

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copyright 2015

In the Valley of the Shadow

a story attributed to

Bram Stoker

1907

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The rubber-tyred wheels jolt unevenly over the granite setts. Dimly I recognise the familiar grey streets and garden-centred squares. We stop, and through the little crowd on the pavement I am carried indoors and up to the high-ceiling ward. Gently they lift me off the stretcher and put me in bed, and I say: “What queer curtains you have! They have faces worked on the border. Are they those of your friends?” The matron smiles, and I think what a quaint idea it is. Then suddenly it strikes me that I have said something foolish, but still the faces are there right enough. (Even when I got well I could sometimes see them in certain lights.) One of the faces is familiar, and I am just going to ask how they know So-and-so, when I am left alone. For hours and hours (it seems) no one comes near me. At first I am patient, but gradually a fierce anger seizes me. Did I submit to be brought here merely to die in solitude and in suffocating darkness? I will not stay in this place; far better to go back and die at home! Suddenly I am borne in a winged machine up, up into the cool air. Far below and infinitesimally small lies the “New Town,” half-hid beneath the fluffy smoke; yonder, clear and blue and glittering, is the Firth of Forth; and beyond the sunlit hills of Fife are the advance-guards of the Grampians. A moment only of sheer palpitating ecstasy, then a soul-shattering fall into the black abyss of oblivion. (I hold Mr H. G. Wells partially responsible for this little excursion.) It is light again, but what is that which prevents my seeing the window? A screen? What does that betoken? A blackness of despair grips me. It is all over, then! No more mountaineering, no more pleasant holidays. This is the end of all my little ambitions. This is, in truth, the bitterness of death. Presently a nurse comes with a cooling drink, and, making a tremendous effort to look unconcerned, I ask for the screen to be removed. She laughs and folds it up, when I see another screen opposite partially concealing a bed. So I have company. (This was a comparatively lucid interval.) What a queer place to have texts! Right round the cornice of the room. And they are constantly changing too. “The Lord is my Shepherd-” “I will arise-” Really this is most irritating. I cannot finish any of them. If the letters would only stay still for a single moment! But what is that below? It is a wide sandy beach with the blue sea beyond. On the top of a pole in the foreground is a-what is it?-yes, a man’s head, of course. (It was really a hanging electric light which by some curious means I must have seen in an inverted position.) “Sister, I am sure that could be worked up into a splendid story. Please give me some paper and my fountain pen. If I don’t write it down now I shall forget it, just as has happened before when I have thought of things during the night.” (As a matter of fact, when, I was convalescent I did want to write not only this particular tale, but a complete account of my visions. Of course, I was not permitted, and now, alas! it has gone to join that great company of magnificent-seeming but elusive ideas one has in dreams.) “Honestly, Sister, I must go out for a few moments. The man is in great danger, and I alone can save him. There is a desperate plot against his life. He lives quite close by in one of the two houses on each side of this.” Sister promises to see about this, and I lie back only half-satisfied. Presently my bed begins noiselessly to move. It goes through the wall into the next house. Room after room is visited, but my doomed friend is not there. The other houses are then inspected in turn, with no result. I have a feeling that he is being spirited away just in front of me so as to be always in the next house. Sister is at the bottom of this trick, I am sure. (Here began that absurd hatred and suspicion of her which only left me with the delirium.) “Oh, doctor, I am glad to see you! Really in a free country it is intolerable that a simple request like this cannot be granted me, and to save a man’s life, too. You can see for yourself that I am quite sensible and very much in earnest. Try me.” The doctor asks what day of the week it is. I answer, Scots fashion: “Oh, that’s easy! If I am the man who came here on Monday, then it is Wednesday, but if I came on Thursday, then it’s Saturday. If you will tell me which man I am, I will tell you what day it is.” Overcome by this logic, the doctor gives in, but suggests a compromise, to which I agree. It is that the four neighbouring houses be brought in and placed before my bed, so that I can make sure of seeing and warning my friend in distress. “No, I will not drink whisky. Surely you know perfectly well that I am a Mussulman and forbidden to drink spirits? You cannot wish me to violate the principles of my religion?” Sister assures me that the draught is not whisky, and puts the glass to my lips. In horror I dash it to the floor. “Devil in human form, you tempt me to my destruction. Begone and let me die in the true faith.” (Of course it was not whisky, but something of quite an opposite nature. Weeks later, on recounting this incident, I was reminded of having one day casually read a page or two of a novel in which a Mohammedan is tempted to drink wine. It made no impression whatever at the time, but it must have been stored up somewhere.) Presently Sister returns with three other nurses and a fresh supply of the accursed stuff. All means are tried, from argument, in which they are signally worsted, to persuasion and gentle force. Suddenly I resolve on flight, and actually reach the door of the room before being overpowered and brought back to bed. Then I am asked to put my finger in the dose and prove to myself that it is not whisky. In this suggestion I see Sister’s malicious cunning, so I smell the wet finger, and triumphantly assert that it is whisky. When they say it is twelve o’clock, and that I am keeping them all out of bed, I answer that they need not stay for me, and, anyway, what is that to the loss of my soul? At length I am forced down, and the glass put to my clenched teeth. I pray inwardly for help in this dire extremity. Lo! a brilliant idea. I will pretend to be dead. I stiffen myself and hold my breath. (I can remember no further effort, but I was told afterwards the imitation was wonderful. Even the nurses grew alarmed, and the doctor was sent for. I have a dim recollection of his coming, and before I knew where I was he had injected something, which I thought was the whisky, into my arm.) I sit up in bed, and glare at them all with concentrated hatred, then I fall back, heartbroken at my forced abjuration, sobbing, sobbing. I am suffering for my sin. Sister is stabbing me in the Shoulder-blade with a red-hot dagger. (It was a fly-blister, and my skin is very sensitive.) I am aching all over. Suddenly I am alone on a flat desert plain. I am sitting with my back against one of the stone pillars of a huge closed gateway reaching to the sky. In front of me is proceeding a cinematographic entertainment on a stupendous scale. (I cannot now remember much about it, but the series was long and of an appalling character. Below each picture was a placard stating the subject of the next one. I had the feeling that they were not pictures at all, but real events in the process of happening; further that by answering a question put to me by a mysterious voice I could bring the series to an end, but, though I knew the answer, it was quite beyond my power to give it. Immediately following my failure to reply, from somewhere behind me a full organ pealed forth and a choir of voices broke into a mocking ditty, which embodied the proper answer, and also words of scorn directed against myself. Till recently this ditty haunted me occasionally, but I have now, I am glad to say, forgotten both air and words. All I know is that it was like a quick chant, and quite unfamiliar to me. When the horrid song was over I fell into a state of self-condemnation mixed with helpless expectancy, which was so poignant as to move me still when I think of it.) This picture is one of wars and earthquakes and burning mountains. Underneath it are the words “End of the World.” I have a vision of the countless myriads of mankind kneeling in agony on the other side of the gate. A multitudinous murmur swells into an awful shriek for pity. “Who am I, O God, that this burden is laid on me? Am I the keeper of that countless host? I cannot answer.” Even as I speak a shudder cleaves the air, a cataclysmal mirage comes into view, the organ booms and the impish choir begins its torturing refrain. Underneath this picture there is no placard. The dreadful music ceases, and the horrid scene before me works on in silence. It passes, and then there is neither light nor darkness. The desert disappears, the gateway is no more, the infinite host has gone like the dew of the morning, and I am left in presence of nothing. The realisation is frightful; my brain is whirling; relief must come; human nature cannot bear it. Ah, thank God, I am going mad-when from somewhere, but whence I know not, comes a light scornful laugh, a Satanic voice says, “Sold again!” the organ swells, the invisible choir sings anew, and the whole series of pictures begins again from the beginning. For a moment the tension is relaxed, “God’s in His heaven” after all, when, like the clang of steel, the Voice utters the unanswerable question. Oh, God, I must-I shall speak. The answer, the answer is- “What time is it, Russell?” (Russell was the male night-nurse, the necessity for whose presence the reader will by this time fully understand!) “Half-past four, sir.” “Well, I must get up to catch the first train to Glasgow. It is a matter of life and death. Please give me my clothes.” Russell endeavours to soothe me with promises of going tomorrow, and so forth, all of which I see through with merciless clearness. In the end, as I threaten to alarm the whole household, I am wrapped up in blankets, carried to an easy-chair before the fire, and a screen put behind me. “You can’t get a train, sir, before half-past six.” “Excuse me, there is a train at 5.55, and I am going to get it. By the way, are you sure Sister is not about? I thought I saw her round the corner of the screen. No? Then give me some soda and milk, and have you a cigarette anywhere?” Russell naturally denied having cigarettes, whereupon, as he afterwards told me, I proceeded to curse him, his family, antecedents, and descendants together, with such copiousness and minuteness of diction that I spoke without stopping for an hour and a half! I fancy Mr Kipling is responsible for at least the Indian meticulosity of my comminations. Anyhow, the effort having exhausted me, on Russell saying that I had now missed the train, and had better go back to bed to wait for the next, I sensibly agreed. That was the climax, and on awaking some hours later from a peaceful sleep I found that the crisis was past, and that I was as sane again as usual. The first book I asked for was the Pilgrim’s Progress, and as soon as I was permitted to read I turned to the account of Christian’s passage through the Valley of the Shadow. I had felt before that Bunyan’s demons were stage demons, his quagmires and pits merely simulacra, the accessories generally such as Drury Lane would laugh to scorn. Now I am sure of it. The real difficulty, of course, is to do it better.

1.18 Vermont, 11

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copyright 2015

Vermont, 11

a story by

Jono Naito

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There He Was, bearded and set in chopped bark, like it was hewn there by skilled hands. I said to Marie, the neighbor’s cousin, that it was a holy man I would someday study as a minister, showing his face not in book pages but in real, live wood. A spirit-touched place, a single divine fingerprint. She laughed at it, and said she saw nothing. I wanted to push her, but the face was watching me.
She pulled me across the grass and told me to look at clouds and feel the dirt on my toenails, to know that nature was our mother and father. Marie always knew when I was angry, when I would hide, kicked out for a tantrum behind the barn. There I sat, chipping away at paint. That would show them, I prayed, banging my head against the wall. Every time, Marie would come and laugh at my tears, and drag me away to some distraction.
At the well Marie flipped a coin, a nickel, over her head and into the darkness, and made a wish out loud so I could hear it. I didn’t know why she wanted to be tall someday; tall people had to duck to hold their children, to get under doors. She sat on the edge, like she wasn’t supposed to and said if I was so angry with her I could just push her then, into the well. I didn’t, but I confess I considered it. I just looked down the well at the eye of God, a still water, a deep notion that, even as a child, I feared to see nothing but light.
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Jono Naito is a recovering New Yorker and MFA student at Syracuse University. His work has appeared in Bard Lux Literary Magazine, Paper Darts Magazine, and the Eunoia Review, as well as online at jononaito.com

1.17 Fundevogel

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copyright 2015

Fundevogel

a story by

The Brothers Grimm

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There was once a forester who went into the forest to hunt, and as he entered it he heard a sound of screaming as if a little child were there. He followed the sound, and at last came to a high tree, and at the top of this a little child was sitting, for the mother had fallen asleep under the tree with the child, and a bird of prey had seen it in her arms, had flown down, snatched it away, and set it on the high tree.
The forester climbed up, brought the child down, and thought to himself: ’You will take him home with you, and bring him up with your Lina.’ He took it home, therefore, and the two children grew up together. And the one, which he had found on a tree was called Fundevogel, because a bird had carried it away. Fundevogel and Lina loved each other so dearly that when they did not see each other they were sad.
Now the forester had an old cook, who one evening took two pails and began to fetch water, and did not go once only, but many times, out to the spring. Lina saw this and said, ’Listen, old Sanna, why are you fetching so much water?’ ’If you will never repeat it to anyone, I will tell you why.’ So Lina said, no, she would never repeat it to anyone, and then the cook said: ’Early tomorrow morning, when the forester is out hunting, I will heat the water, and when it is boiling in the kettle, I will throw in Fundevogel, and will boil him in it.’
Early next morning the forester got up and went out hunting, and when he was gone the children were still in bed. Then Lina said to Fundevogel: ’If you will never leave me, I too will never leave you.’ Fundevogel said: ’Neither now, nor ever will I leave you.’ Then said Lina: ’Then will I tell you. Last night, old Sanna carried so many buckets of water into the house that I asked her why she was doing that, and she said that if I would promise not to tell anyone, and she said that early tomorrow morning when father was out hunting, she would set the kettle full of water, throw you into it and boil you; but we will get up quickly, dress ourselves, and go away together.’
The two children therefore got up, dressed themselves quickly, and went away. When the water in the kettle was boiling, the cook went into the bedroom to fetch Fundevogel and throw him into it. But when she came in, and went to the beds, both the children were gone. Then she was terribly alarmed, and she said to herself: ’What shall I say now when the forester comes home and sees that the children are gone? They must be followed instantly to get them back again.’
Then the cook sent three servants after them, who were to run and overtake the children. The children, however, were sitting outside the forest, and when they saw from afar the three servants running, Lina said to Fundevogel: ’Never leave me, and I will never leave you.’ Fundevogel said: ’Neither now, nor ever.’ Then said Lina: ’Do you become a rose-tree, and I the rose upon it.’ When the three servants came to the forest, nothing was there but a rose-tree and one rose on it, but the children were nowhere. Then said they: ’There is nothing to be done here,’ and they went home and told the cook that they had seen nothing in the forest but a little rose-bush with one rose on it. Then the old cook scolded and said: ’You simpletons, you should have cut the rose-bush in two, and have broken off the rose and brought it home with you; go, and do it at once.’ They had therefore to go out and look for the second time. The children, however, saw them coming from a distance. Then Lina said: ’Fundevogel, never leave me, and I will never leave you.’ Fundevogel said: ’Neither now; nor ever.’ Said Lina: ’Then do you become a church, and I’ll be the chandelier in it.’ So when the three servants came, nothing was there but a church, with a chandelier in it. They said therefore to each other: ’What can we do here, let us go home.’ When they got home, the cook asked if they had not found them; so they said no, they had found nothing but a church, and there was a chandelier in it. And the cook scolded them and said: ’You fools! why did you not pull the church to pieces, and bring the chandelier home with you?’ And now the old cook herself got on her legs, and went with the three servants in pursuit of the children. The children, however, saw from afar that the three servants were coming, and the cook waddling after them. Then said Lina: ’Fundevogel, never leave me, and I will never leave you.’ Then said Fundevogel: ’Neither now, nor ever.’ Said Lina: ’Be a fishpond, and I will be the duck upon it.’ The cook, however, came up to them, and when she saw the pond she lay down by it, and was about to drink it up. But the duck swam quickly to her, seized her head in its beak and drew her into the water, and there the old witch had to drown. Then the children went home together, and were heartily delighted, and if they have not died, they are living still.

1.16 The Piecemeal Boy

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copyright 2015

The Piecemeal Boy

 a story by

J. A. McGowan

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Dear Tamsin,
Enclosed pleased find the story I mentioned at your grandmother’s funeral, the one I found amongst her intimate effects. It was published back in the ‘30s, as you can see, but from my many conversations with your late grandmother, it is the only story she ever wrote which she claimed was based on personal experience. I hope this will shed some light on the delusions from which your grandmother suffered during her long life, which, as this story demonstrates, took hold of her much earlier than we previously thought. It may also go some way to explaining her reaction when you gave her the news that you were moving to the Dorset coast. Should you wish to republish this or any other pieces of her work, she left you the rights in her will. There is some hope of the National Trust taking on Glenholme, dilapidated as it is.
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Yours sincerely,
August Berringly-Orr, Esq.
 
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published in Weirder Tales, May 1938
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The Black Isle
by April Darling
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I was eighteen and in university when I became embroiled in my uncle’s affairs. He had become increasingly reclusive of late, only ever contacting family and friends by phone, often at three or four in the morning, ranting that he could hear Their footsteps over the roar of the sea, but they weren’t to have him. Which in and of itself was odd, as he lived near the shores of Loch—, which was often stirred by bad weather, but could scarcely be said to mimic the sea.
Just before the Easter holidays I had received an unwonted, terse, and mysterious letter:
 
April,
I shall be glad to receive you at Glenholme during your holidays. Maybe a quick young mind like yours can help me out of this hell. Your loving uncle T—.
 
I called my mother, who confessed she had “volunteered” me for familial duties. In vain, all my protestations that I had planned (and paid for) a sojourn on the Côte d’Azur with my girlfriends. I pleaded at least to be able to bring a friend or two with me, though I knew few if any would sacrifice warmth and sand for sunless Scotland. The very suggestion, voiced hesitantly by my mother, brought on a near-apoplectic fit in my uncle, which in turn brought on one of Mother’s migraines.
Nothing, of course, could shift one of Mother’s migraines except blind and unquestioning obedience. And so, like the sacrificial Paschal lamb, I arrived on the foreboding shores of Loch—, shivering and vulnerable in the face of the storm about to break.
Uncle T— met me with his pony trap, his greeting a mere “Well. So you’re here then.” Living as isolated as he did, manners counted for little—unless you should happen to cheek him. Then you were as likely to feel the whip as the poor pony. So, exhausted from a long and convoluted train journey, I risked no speech during the two-hour ride back to Glenholme. Once a dog-fox barked. Uncle T— stopped, listened, and said in a satisfied manner, “Good. They don’t know you’re here yet.” By this time I was three-quarters of the way to slumber, but I would remember that, later, and wonder what he had actually heard.
Two days at Glenholme passed, with Uncle T— not offering any more than casual conversation or criticism about my choice of dress for this time of year (I was very much my age in terms of dress); we met mostly at meals. How I longed for my university chums, no doubt giddy with dissipation in France! The silence, the stillness, the sheer heaviness of Glenholme pressed down on me, till I could bear it no more.
On the third day I rose early, threw some necessities into a hold-all, and stole out with some half-formed scheme to steal the pony and flee to the station. As I quietly entered the stable, the sun was not yet risen, and some godforsaken forest creature, of which many wandered the estate, gave rise to a piercing scream. I, too, shrieked, and then it seemed my uncle was immediately before me, standing in the door and blocking my way out. He met my eyes. I saw nothing but grim determination in his.
“You awake yet?” he asked needlessly. My heart hammered. I noticed his haversack was packed and slung in a corner. He tacked up his riding horse, a beast only he could ride, and asked me to hand the haversack to him, a feat I could barely accomplish, due to its weight. He told me to open the door, which I did.
“April,” he said, light hands flicking on the reins. “I’m going back to Hell. You’ll find all you need on my desk. If you need help cleaning or cooking, Mrs. MacDonald will call in three times a week. I should be back by the time you leave. If I’m not,” and here he hesitated and checked his dancing mount. “If I’m not, God have mercy on us all,” he concluded, looking at me queerly. He spurred his horse to a canter, and called over his shoulder, “You must read what I’ve left for you.You must. And for God’s sake don’t let them in, no matter what you see or feel.” And then he was gone, leaving me alone and barely awake as the sun rose. I had hardly noticed the brace of pistols on his belt. My uncle hardly ever went armed.
The pony’s snoring roused me from my shocked stupor, and an out-of-season pheasant exploded out of the brush, spooking me. I went back to my room, and slept until noon.
I was not a great walker, but I walked that afternoon, all around the estate, tiring myself out. Glenholme was a huge place to be alone in, and the departure of my uncle seemed to sap all life from it. When I got back in at dusk, the house seemed to welcome me enthusiastically, as if it wanted me inside. I mused that an estate of this sort must want a family in it, to fill it with warmth and light. The thought struck me afterwards as nonsensical. So I went to the kitchen, and by the light of a hurricane lamp ate a cold supper. Then, exhausted by my exertions, I slept.
I woke up early the next morning, though daylight had broken. A fine rain washed the outside of the window, daunting the prospect of a walk that day. My enthusiasm had been diminished by the day before, and I was of the age to find comfort in art rather than nature. But, of course, I had brought no books, for what young student wants to work in the holidays? So I wandered Glenholme looking for distraction, feeling, as any young girl does, for the poor animals whose heads were mounted on the walls in all rooms (save, thankfully, the bedrooms), and not interested overmuch in the heavy tomes written and bound by the worthies of my father’s generation. I drifted from picture to picture, but they were no different than those any other old house of the period—watercolours and oils in dark and heavy frames.
The rain continued. Driven by sheer boredom as much as anything else, I entered my uncle’s study. It was a huge room, and untidy in the way only a man can be when he has unassailable rights to his own property, with papers everywhere, and especially shoved willy-nilly into the crannies of the rolltop desk that took pride of place along one wall. I noticed that on that wall several sketches had been tacked wrongly, so the pictures could not be seen. Curious, I turned them over, and saw pencil and charcoal sketches— island views, and two or three scenes of a small village, its landscape bereft of any pylons or wires that might hint it was on either the phone or electricity. The views were done in a strong, if bored hand (my uncle’s), and labelled only, “The Black Isle—view to the north” and the like.
The pictures of the village, though, were done by a hand that showed much perturbation. The pencil marks were more heavily scored upon the paper, and the strokes more angular and slightly erratic. These were simply labelled with names of the houses. At the last, there was one picture of a village green with a maypole about it, and figures dancing about the maypole. The picture had pencil shaded across it as if to give the impression of mist or rain, and underneath in a decidedly disturbed hand was written clearly, ‘HELL.’
Why were the pictures back to front? Had I stumbled upon a secret? The evidence of the pictures could be used to show my uncle was not in his right mind. I shuddered to think what a handwriting expert, such as the police might these days employ, would make of the desperate scrawl on that last picture of the village green.
I started to take note of the books in the room. Many of them were such as you’d find on any gentleman’s bookshelves. But the ones scattered about were of a different nature completely—lists of sacred sites, pilgrimages, Roman ruins—all sorts of antiquarian Scottish history that had come into vogue at the time of the old Queen. There were journals, there, too, in cramped, undistinguished hands, records of intrepid men (or so I guessed) who gathered the information in the books. There were biographies of Somerled, and many books of the history of the Inner Hebrides. These last had lines and heavy underscoring, which I saw corresponded to a large map on the table under the window in which my uncle had drawn five lines in a sort of five-point star, with one of the points in the Hebrides, one off the southwest coast (in the Scillies, I guessed), one on the Isle of Wight, and then one other on the east coast and one that ended at the very top of Scotland with an arrow indicating it needed to go further north. The map bore the heading “THE FIVE CARDINAL (ELDER) POINTS,” with the caveat “NB:  all islands—why?” underneath. In heavy lettering the largest isle with the point under it was labelled “THE BLACK ISLE,” with all manner of sketching about it.
I couldn’t properly discern the sketches, as they were done in miniature and I am vain enough not to like to wear spectacles, but the nature of those sketches was like enough to the picture of the village green to disturb me. There was a dot on the island which no doubt corresponded to the village I had seen.
A sudden crack of thunder brought me to my senses. It was dark already. I went back to the kitchen and ate another cold supper, which sat like lead in my stomach as I went up to my room. I couldn’t get my uncle’s sketches out of my head. Hell?  He had said he was going back to Hell. We were not a religious family, yet the drawings were unequivocal and spoke of a great perturbation of mind.  I fell asleep in the armchair by the fire, wondering.
In the morning, I could see we were headed for a long bout of rain, such as defines rural Scotland in the Spring. I spent the morning pleasantly with Mrs. MacDonald, and gave her a note to compensate her for her trouble in getting to Glenholme in the rain, for which she was effusively grateful.  She baked and cooked all day, and I was quite cheered by the time evening came and she left for home.
I went back to my uncle’s study. I had near to forgotten the pictures during the day. I took them off the wall and gathered them in a pile, arranging them by the dates I noticed in the lower left-hand corner. They had all been drawn over the span of a month some few years before. I sat down at the desk to go over them at leisure.
Oh, the dangers of an unoccupied mind! I saw on the desk a large folder, which contained a small book and a great quantity of papers. It was labelled, “April.” These, then, were the affairs my uncle had mentioned. I opened the folder.
The small book appeared to be a diary of some sort, such as a gentleman might keep. I resolved to put that aside, as a gentleman’s affairs are not best looked into by a young woman closely related to him, and I imagined the look on my mother’s face should I dare to read it. But I pulled the loose sheaf of papers closely, and saw that they were mostly portraits.
If I had stopped there—if I had not started to look at the portraits—how much might have been averted! But youth is ever curious, and I leafed through them. They were a series of faces and studies of other bits of anatomy. They started off normally, but oh! what they turned into! They seemed to be organised by families, and traced generations as far as I could tell. The older ones seemed normal enough, but as we got closer and closer to my generation I noticed that the faces became bent, distorted, mockeries of themselves. Eyes became too large, expressions twisted to give the onlooker a sense of such unease! There was a study of one young boy who had one eye larger than the other, and studies on the same page indicated that this young man had webbed hands, as well, and a twisted shoulder. I looked through the rest of the pictures and saw progressive degeneration in all the series of studies, but that one of the twisted boy demanded my attention. I stared at it, fascinated, until I was convinced his expression was one of purest malice.
Distressed and determined to put my mind at rest, I took a turn about the room. My eyes were tired and playing tricks on me, and the wind outside excited me to strange fancies. As the rain lashed against the windows, I imagined that I could see movement—just a little movement—in the ocean views my uncle had drawn, and, whenever I looked at the wall, I seemed to see a portrait hanging there, a boy portrayed piecemeal, watching me.
I retired to bed. My sleep was fitful.
On the morrow I was still haunted by the portrait. I imagined in the hours before dawn that the wet branches slapping against my window made a sound like webbed fingers sliding across them. I shook myself and, despite the rain, resolved to walk out again that day. I wouldn’t go far.
I fought to keep my balance in the storm, and took more than one spill. But I fought my way to a point that overlooked Loch—, and stared across its rain-scarred surface. For a moment I found such peace as may come in extremes of cold and discomfort, and then another dog-fox barked and I realised that the surface of the loch had become in my mind the blackest of black seas. I struggled home, summoned a hot bath out of the ancient boiler workings, and eventually fell into a deep and dreamless slumber.
The next day I felt better. The rain abated somewhat, though it did not stop, and I decided to do some tidying, as Mrs. MacDonald couldn’t possibly cover the house in one day. It needed teams of maids working around the clock just to keep the dust in abeyance. In trunks long-unopened I found not just moth-eaten linens but skins, possibly of the various animals, and one that looked like an entire seal skin, mottled with age. In the late afternoon the foxes were going crazy, barking and howling. By the time dark fell I, too, fell into my bed, exhausted with the effort of merely trying to stem the tide of Glenholme’s imminent decay.
That night’s sleep was not dreamless. Oh no. I dreamt of what I now know to be the Black Isle, shrouded in mists, with treacherous rocks off its coasts. I dreamt I was staying in a small village, much as any poor Scottish village might be that was off the track of travellers, nestled around a village green. I dreamt that the villagers there relied on the sea for their living, and in the darkness of my dreams I saw them dressed in sealskins, barking like the seals themselves, capering wildly in deformed silhouettes against the falling darkness. Several amongst them afterwards slipped down to the sea, where they took the form of seals and swam off.
I woke to a pre-dawn chorus of pheasants, and the barking of the dog-fox again. I realised that I must have heard him barking, and changed that in my dream into the sound of the seals…
Having exhausted my meagre store of cleaning skills the previous day, and with the weather turning for the worse again, I was once again thrown on my uncle’s resources. I visited the pony and did as much as I could to ease its boredom, but to be honest, that was a boy’s work, not a girl’s who was brought up gently. Inevitably, I went back to my uncle’s study. I put the portraits face down on the desk and began reading the other papers, once of which was his will, which required quite a bit of concentration as it was writ in outmoded and lawyerly speech. There were some other innocuous affairs too, which I made myself mistress of. Then I was left with the diary. I took it reluctantly, went to the kitchen, ate, and retired to bed with my uncle’s diary.
+
April 2, 19–.
Have been recommended to get some proper sea air for my health. Glenholme weighs upon my sorrows like the overaged elephant she is. I need to find one of my family to take over her care. Or marry. Ha.
+
April 6.
Have arrived at the small village of Grayburn. Am staying with the MacTavishes near the green, but close enough to the cliffs to hear the seals barking on the cliffs below. The Isle is pretty in a very isolated sort of way—I supposed the doctor thought that more of what I have already would be good for me. I arrived late—will sightsee the Island tomorrow. There’s none of it that can’t be reached in a day’s ride. They looked at me askance for bringing Runnymede, but won’t protest against the coin that fills their pockets, I dare say.
+
April 8.
Have been riding about the island, doing sketches. How very worthy of me, and how unutterably boring. Still, I suppose my chest is clear, so that’s a good thing. Mrs. MacTavish’s granddaughter is close to her time. Apparently she’s had a difficult time of it, and Mrs M. keeps going to check on her. Still, as long as I’m fed and there’s a decent brandy…
+
April 15.
Have in an effort to engage myself gone around the village offering to do sketches, and in the process have elevated myself to something of a novelty. All of the adults have volunteered, and trotted out those who are confined to their chairs, too. The children are intrigued. I have noticed that some traits breed very true here, but they seem to change over the course of generations.
+
April 18.
I was woken by tapping on the door, soft but insistent. As I awoke from my slumber, a young girl came in. She whispered not to wake anyone, or there would be consequences for both of us. I feared for my virtue—ha—but she said she wanted her picture drawn. I said yes, not being fully of my senses, and got my tools. By candlelight she was revealed to be remarkably pretty, but with only one eye. The other wasn’t even sewn shut—it was as if it had never grown in her head, and only a dent where the eye should be. She seemed satisfied, but whispered not to tell anyone that she’d been. Her voice took on an aura of menace as she spoke, or so it seemed. Couldn’t get back to sleep as the seals were ululating wildly.
+
April 21.
Less and less sleep. Accursed seals. My days are filled with daytime things, and the nights with increasing unease. What poison dwells in Grayburn? Children come to me in the night each night, sometimes by twos, demanding to have their portraits taken. They are all quite grotesque. Not a one of them seems to have a normal, healthy body, and they seem to revel in the fact. They tell me in echoing whispers how this sets them apart, how they are special, and chosen by the Isle to serve her. The one-eyed girl seems to coordinate them, and seems intent on seeing how much of these poor, deformed creatures I can take. When the last had gone, I heard laughter outside, and carefully looked through a chink in the curtains to see grotesque figures capering on the green in dim light. One of the grotesques turned, and I fancied I could see the baleful glance of the one-eyed girl.
+
Here I stopped reading. What coincidence was this, that I had dreamt of this sort of occurrence but the night before? I felt flushed, as if the portraits that I had left face-down on my uncle’s desk were hanging on my bedroom walls, staring at me. My face and chest were hot. I would have opened the windows, but the foxes were crying like seals, and the rain would have soaked the carpet in seconds. I washed my face, emptied the basin, and filled my ewer afresh. I could feel the heat rising in the room, even still.
+
April 25.
My chest is clear but I have a fever, born of little sleep, I feel, and not much else. I’ve taken to stealing out in the night after the children leave, just to get a little cool air and feel as if I’m not suffocating. I cannot seem to rid myself of the conviction that the one-eyed girl is watching me. I even dreamt that she and the others waited for something on the green, watching my window with wary eyes.
+
April 26.
Most of the villagers were out preparing for the Mayday revels, whatever that entails. I feel worse and worse—only long rides on Runnymede seem to help, and the Island seems increasingly smaller—I took lunch at another town and felt  better, but I’m paid up for the next two weeks in Grayburn, and I can’t afford to be cavalier with money. MacTavish’s granddaughter has moved into the house for her birthing—whilst they were out I tapped on the door to see if she needed anything. I found her breathing laboured, fever high and her eyes wide with fear. She gestured me into her room, which I did reluctantly, leaving the door open. She whispered to me urgently, “Don’t… don’t let them take it. Please. Don’t let them take it,” and only my repeated reassurances that everything would be all right would make her let go of my hand. No sleep. Out of brandy. Bloody seals.
+
April 27.
I don’t know if people have got wind of the nocturnal visits, or whether Mrs MacTavish found out about my visit to her grand-daughter, but I am watched all the time now. They will let me take Runnymede, but I get severe disapproval from all except the boy who keeps the horse. He tells me to come tonight. The granddaughter has started crying, a thin, pitiful sound that goes on forever.
+
April 28.
Another boy was waiting when I went to see Runnymede. I have never seen anyone as twisted, as horrible as he. Large, malformed eyes, one higher than the other, a twisted shoulder, and—I swear it—webbed hands. He made me draw them all, while I could still see, he said, and added that it was nearly time. None of his speech made much sense, and though he is but a boy, in my febrile state I am convinced he means me ill. Could not sleep but for dreams of his face, and the one-eyed girl’s, and all of them dancing, dancing…
+
April 29.
I have found a knife in the hay where that horrid boy sat. It is twisted and cruel, and bloodstained. I threw it off the cliff. Later I found a long cut on Runnymede’s neck, and a stained tin cup in the hay in his stall. I buried it. MacT’s granddaughter will not stop wailing, nor will the seals.
+
April 30.
I woke to screams from downstairs. The girl was giving birth. I didn’t feel well—or welcome–enough to go downstairs, and whenever I looked out the window a child was watching me. So I returned to bed. After a few hours the screaming stopped and so did the seals, so I fell into a fitful slumber. Later I went downstairs for some tea—it was only for some tea—and the granddaughter was sitting numbly in the rocking chair. She looked at me with such hate! “You let them take it,” she said. “It was beautiful, and you let them take it!” I made my escape.
+
May 1.
Last night I can’t tell if I dreamt. I can’t tell what is real any more. They were erecting the maypole, and I watched from my window. Then it seems I was either asleep or delirious, that the villagers and children all gathered on the green, those with straight bodies wearing seal skins to mimic the blessed children, and chanting “Ia! Ia! Ila!” over and over, and the noise of the sea over all. And then there was utter silence, except for the thin wail of a child cut off short. I stole out—or did I?—and found a sticky patch on the ground near the maypole. Hot and sticky.
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May 6.
Glenholme. Oh, dear God, what to write? How did I manage to escape? I went to the May Day celebrations, shaking with fever though I was. They slaughtered a lamb before the celebrations, and it made such a feeble wailing noise. The MacTavish’s granddaughter broke down when she heard it, and started shouting that it wasn’t fair, it wasn’t fair, it was a beautiful baby and they had killed it like they had killed all the others, and what about… when she was bustled away by a dozen or so villagers. I only noticed then that they all had knives at their belts. They asked me to do the Maydance and I refused, pleading infirmity, which seemed obscurely to please them, but said I should watch.
They played drums, which seemed to go on and on in my head, and the blood on the ground from the lamb spread out towards the Maypole where it joined the dried blood from last night, and the villagers danced barefoot weaving over and under, over and under like a net, and the Maypole started to throb like a phallus that rode the undulating earth and then the seals starting to moan like a woman in pain or pleasure…
I ran. I ran to the shed where Runnymede was, with what little I had on me, and I rode for the beach. I don’t know how many times I fell off because of dizziness, or how many times I could swear I heard uneven footsteps, like those of the horrid boy’s coming after me, impossibly fast, knife glinting, but I made the beach, I made it, we swam for hours and I shall never go back to that hell—
+
Here the entries abruptly ceased. I was shaken and hot, and could not, would not believe it. The dark had come whilst I was reading, but I could still hear the cacophony of the foxes and pheasants, and the high keen of a rabbit being killed and eaten. The tapping of the trees against my window sounded like uneven footsteps. There was a sudden hush and a windy noise, and something slid down my door. Heart in my mouth, I opened it, only to find that a window must have been open somewhere, for the portrait of the piecemeal boy and some of the Isle pictures were scattered up the stairs as if they were coming for me.
I am not proud of the fact that I screamed, nor of the fact that I shuttered my windows and locked them. When Mrs. MacDonald came in the morning she found me in bed, mumbling deliriously in a fever about “the boy, the boy.”
She, more practical than I shall ever be, hitched up the pony to the trap and brought me, nearly senseless, to her place, with its fill of tumbling children. She told me I could not bear to be near the children at first, but they were blithe and bonny and soon began to bring me out of myself.
I spent a week there, slowly coming back to myself. In the clear and full light coming through the windows of her cottage, I felt ashamed of what I had come to feel at Glenholme, for such nightmares as I imagined had been brought on by boredom and loneliness, and no more. Surrounded by Mrs. MacDonald’s family, I mended, and though she offered to let me stay until Uncle returned, I knew I had to go back and settle my uncle’s affairs.
Uncle T— did not come home. I did what I could with the accounts and then, late on the last night before I was to leave (the MacDonalds had volunteered to see me off to the station), I took the pictures that had caused me so much anguish. The rain had started again, not so much a downpour as a wind-driven tempest, howling under the eaves, and yet I fancied I could still hear the foxes barking. Stop it, I told myself firmly, and did what I knew I had to. I burned the old sealskin and fed the horrid pictures to the fire.
As I came to the one of the piecemeal boy, the world seemed to spin. No doubt it was the wind blowing things back down the flue, but the boy refused to burn, and as I chased around trying to catch the picture as it wafted about the room, I heard the scream of a horse, as if in terror, and in a flash of lightning I thought I saw Runnymede silhouetted. I finally caught the piecemeal boy, and as I did, something thudded against the window. I screamed.
It was my uncle! Unkempt and beaten, he scrabbled imploringly at the closed window with his bloody hands, clawing, scrabbling, clawing. Blood ran down his face, drenched his shirt collar, and those damned foxes were yowling again. I took the poker and thrust the piecemeal boy deep into the heart of the flames, and as he burned, my uncle slumped against the outside wall.
I found him there. His arms had been slashed at the wrist, and bound crudely but not ineffectually. His throat, too, was lacerated, and when I went to catch Runnymede I found that he, too, was cut and bleeding. Runnymede I could do nothing for, but I threw my uncle over the pony’s back and started the long trek to the MacDonalds’. He was raving by the time we got there, and he never stopped, tales of human sacrifice and living land and swimming through tooth-edged rocks to escape being the next victim, and always the boy and the one-eyed girl.
When they came to take him away he resisted, turning to me at the last and telling the men that they should ask me for I knew it was all true, all true, all true…
To my shame, I kept my silence. For I could hear the foxes barking, and heard the uneven steps in the darkness, which sometimes I still do, even though I live so very far now from the sea…
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previously published in HAUNTED MAGAZINE

1.15 I Can See You

FdXpxOG

COPYRIGHT 2015

I Can See You

a story by

A. E. Shaw

 
Vicious, bold sunshine and a thick kilt in black-and-blue tartan are a brutal combination. Emily’s bare legs are burning as she tip-toes around a grassy square, trying as hard as she might to fit the full spectrum of her Victorian-built school into the frame. But this isn’t Emily’s only problem.
The auto-focus wants to play around the sundial which stands in the gravel octagon that leads paths to and from the entrance’s grand double doors. However much Emily fights the multitude of buttons and settings, the camera won’t shift its opinion to ‘landscape,’ refusing to disable the infuriating ‘facial’ recognition feature. And this isn’t Emily’s biggest problem, either.
Everything reflects off everything else – she sees herself scowling in the viewfinder, has to squint through it to find the image, but even when she does, the arched and lead-crossed windowpanes refract rays of white and yellow across the shot. Thus each click, when examined through the glare, results in something increasingly less close to the composition she has in mind. Still, this isn’t Emily’s real problem.
Emily twists and turns and contorts herself a little longer and then gives up on that plan, sweat running down her back. She longs to remove her blazer, but that wouldn’t be allowed, because she’s outside, during school hours, which she thought would be a privilege and a pleasure, thank you, final art project, thank you, great inspiration, and then it isn’t either of those things, it’s just hot, furiously so, where the air chafes your throat and there isn’t enough cold water in the world to slake your thirst.
She walks down the path, crunch-crunch, every step a weight with the little blue camera slippery-smooth in her damp hands, requiring just a little more grip than is comfortable. At the corner of a withering flower patch, an easy stone’s throw from the sun-flooded buildings, she re-angles the camera at one corner. Taking a deep breath, Emily ignores the dusty urge to cough it out again, holding, sharp focus, there, there, there except then not, because that sodding auto-focus is there again, great, get off the window, that’s not the point. She snaps the picture anyway, because at this rate not only will she not have the references for texture, perspective and light that she’s shooting for, she won’t have anything at all.
As the shutter clicks and the camera whirrs in digital imitation of those beautiful machines which rotated old film and didn’t try to decide on the subject, object, focus and face for you, Emily is surprised to feel a cold shiver at her sides, as if a wind has whipped around her. But there is no breeze. She blinks, as if hoping to clear her eyes of something – was there something? She creases her face tight, holding the camera a matchstick’s distance from her eyes to check she didn’t blur the picture.
She didn’t. It’s fresh razor-bright. The school looks luminescent. The ornate wallwork is cut perfect white against a bright blue sky, and the yellow haze of the day is finally absent.
But there’s something – someone – in the window, ruining the symmetry. Who? Logic suggests it’s the housemistress, mahogany-haired Mrs. Mellor, but… no. It’s a blonde girl. No one she recognises. She’ll be Emily’s insurmountable problem. But Emily doesn’t know it yet. She snaps on, satisfied by the sudden break she’s had. It’s as if everything plaguing her before has passed.
If only.
At this stage of the year, there is little time, or inclination, for socialising, and what there is has been quelled by the relentless layers of heat. Emily holes herself up in the computer room, hotter even than direct sunlight thanks to all the electronics, as desperate as anyone’s lungs for their next breath of fanned-up air to be cooler, and, on this day, just as unsuccessful.
The day’s photographs load as slowly as someone trying to sprint through the weight of the weather, but when they appear on the screen then once more there is a whisper in the air, and Emily feels her head swim like she’s weighted down at the bottom of the school pool. She clicks enlarge, zoom. She looks again, and again, but there is a girl there, in that picture of the corner of the building, and she is not just in the window, but leaning out of it. Staring, wide-eyed. Out at her.
That face doesn’t belong to anyone at this school, of this, after fifteen years in a wretched woollen kilt and hideously-cut shirt, Emily is sure. But the hair is tied in school colours – how can Emily see this, in such a picture? Yet she can – and her shirt is regulation, and there’s no other school left in the whole country with a collar so ridiculous.
“I can see you,” Emily whispers, the words falling deft from her lips as if they were incantation. In the next picture, and the next, where there had been nothing, there now are thin white legs, and a swish of golden hair, another kilt but there was no one else out front and there’s this face… this unfamiliar face.
I can see you.
Emily doesn’t even know if she’s hearing, or saying the words, now. She stares and stares, and when Anna comes by to check her course calendar she grabs her and says, “Do you know who this is?” but Anna yanks her arm free and looks at her as if they haven’t been fair friends since the age of seven. “I’ve got to get on, I’m sorry…” she says, and leaves, and Emily feels oddly alone.
I can see you.
“Jump.”
Emily shifts and switches this way and that in her seat, but there is nothing, and no one, left in the lab.
And now the voice has started, it refuses to stop.                      
*
Evening rushes up, and there is no relief in the air. Emily feigns a headache to get early to bed, glad of the chance to rest – delirium, begone – but bed doesn’t feel her own tonight. Her nightdress is itchy and weighty as the wool of her uniform. As if this were not enough, there is that voice, wheedling, a creeping pinch of a plea at the edge of Emily’s understanding.
It has to stop.
It won’t stop.
Emily rubs her eyes, and tries to relax, but there is no relaxing to be had. The windows are open wide, but they may as well be barred shut with a raging fire in the dorm for all the relief they give. Windows this old shouldn’t be left like this, but it’s so hot, someone must’ve thought it a sensible idea.
“Please.”
No, Emily thinks, but doesn’t say, because it’s all in her head, isn’t it, it’s not something that’s happening in her dorm, it isn’t real, no, ‘please’ is not something you whisper plaintively through the ether, not in the real world.
“Jump!” comes the plea, louder now, and Emily is sure, still, that this is inside her head. It is. There’s no stirring in the dorm. Emily’s heart is thumping apace once more; it is unbearable, but there is nothing to be done but bear it and repeat the facts. It’s just the heat. It’s only the weather. Tomorrow will be better.
Emily presses her face into the pillow, sucking in its feathery denseness, no storybook trustworthy friends to turn to, just her determinedly academic grit to get the last couple of months of A-levels out of the way so she can get out of this godforsaken school and into the real world which must, surely, be less cruel than this.
*
As the hours pass, she is swamped by the day, by the heat, by sweat and torment. The voice grows louder and the face is clearer. At one point she swears the girl is next to her, clear as anything even in pitch dark.
Emily doesn’t remember getting up, nor does she remember changing. Nor does anyone else in her dorm notice her movements. Greater forces are at work.
She would remember standing at the window. Furious and confused at what she almost did, but doesn’t do. No! she yells in her mind, turning, willful, definite. She is not jumping anywhere. She heads down the stairs.
The result is the same for Emily, but if she won’t jump, she must be pushed. That changes things for our whispering vision.
*       
The discovery is made by the aforementioned Mrs. Mellor, on exiting the front doors for her daily constitutional. The scene is horrific. How can it be that no one yet has seen it? As it happens, this can’t be seen through the windows. Is it a trick of the light, strange fortune, an awful coincidence, or something else? It’s all four. Nobody saw.
Suicide, it must have been. What a terrible, unfortunate thing. Must be the weather, Mrs. Mellor thinks to herself, convinces herself, and she doesn’t worry about the strange angles of the leap Emily, never the most athletic of girls, would have needed to make, the hideous precision with which she would have to have arranged herself, mid-air, never mind the fact that she is merely stabbed, rather than halved, by the sundial.
Lucky, isn’t it, that there’s that camera, just there, on the gravel, placed neatly six feet from the sundial, to show that actually there’s more to it than that daft assumption. Mrs. Mellor goes to pick it up, but she realises just in time that there might be prints or evidence upon it, so she leaves where it lies. She saves lives and minds with this simple lack of action, although she’ll never know that, for the story now moves on, to the investigation of the contents of that camera, which happens first at the local police station, and then later in many, many more places, all of which will come to wish, quietly, that they had never offered to ‘take a look.’
Emily’s first pictures, those that disturbed her so, that plagued her mind, they come out now without a shred of interest to them, plain and dull, no shapes, no faces, no suggestions. There are twenty-odd, just the school, the topiary, the flowers. The sundial. It’s only the last two pictures that have any impact.
The second-to-last picture on the camera is that of Emily arched back, impaled upon the sundial. It’s shocking, of course, but it isn’t the worst. Poor Emily. She’s still alive, her mouth clearly open in an active scream, but her arms are already hanging limp and jointed back upon themselves as the nerves and muscles give out. She is neat and tidy, her school uniform as pleated and placed as if someone had arranged her, she might be resting at break time on a bench, save for that scream, that contortion of her mouth and face, and for the area between her shoulder-blades, pierced dark by the point of the iron gnomon, then at least still clean of the swarm of tacky blood she would later be found in.
The final shot is a smiling girl, long blonde hair tied tight in two tails with black-and-blue tartan ribbon, the collar of her white shirt starched bright, broad and round.
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previously published in HAUNTED MAGAZINE

1.14 Moment

239c226652597350988942a8621a64f5

copyright 2015

Moment

a story by

Kevin DeLuca

+
Four sailors went abroad to ensnare Moment in their nets.
At break of day they went forth; and wind yelled in their sails, and gulls flashed them by, and cliffs rose and fell away behind them; and come noontide they sailed to a cove where the sun lulls waves and Moment is wont to swim.
The day long they stood, poised with spear and net. Here they glimpsed it lolling amid shoals, or there swimming neath flashes of sun.
Yet Moment proved elusive, and the sailors, try as they might, threw their nets to no avail, and to no target hurled their spears—but Moment’s scales always gleamed away, laughing.
Cursing their luck, they raised oars, and turned their prow shoreward; and wind yelled in their sails, and gulls flashed them by, and cliffs rose and fell away behind them.
But going homeward they caught Year, for he is clumsy, and huge, and dove headlong into their nets.
+
Kevin DeLuca is a writer of weird fiction. He has a strong appreciation for the tranquility that accompanies 3 AM. His influences include, but are not limited to, Oscar Wilde, Lord Dunsany, Brian Jacques, HP Lovecraft.

1.13 Sin Eater

barefoot sundress
copyright 2015

Sin Eater

a story by

Alex Henderson

 
They say that all the sin eaters in Appalachia died out. Went by way of the dodo birds, and the Indians who once made their homes up in the mountains before the white folk chased them off. My daddy was the first to tell me otherwise.
He said that when night fell around the tops of the mountains peaks, thick and velveteen, when the fog settled low-slung and grievers shook in their beds, and echoes of dirges moved between tree trunks, you could hear them up there singing along, glutting themselves on the sins of the dead.
When I asked him why they didn’t come down he told me, “People like to die with what they have. They like to keep their evils close.”
“Why?”
He shrugged his shoulders, lit a cigarette. “You live with yourself, you die with yourself. Don’t need no damn sin eater to atone for what you should’ve already made peace with.”
I pulled my legs up to my chest, set my chin on my kneecaps. “That why they’re all gone?”
“Not gone,” he said. “Just away.”
+
Four years later he died in a wreck along the highway. There was a woman in the car with him, not my mama, some girl he picked up from a rest stop, bruised and bleeding, with silver hoops through her ears big enough for me to fit my hand through. She was sixteen, just a year off my age. A young little thing, or at least that’s what they called her on the news. 
Down at the morgue they took blood from his arm, found alcohol in his system along with a cocktail of other things, cocaine and heroin, the prescription pills my mama kept in the medicine cabinet above the bathroom sink.
That night while Mama sat in the living room, sipping coffee black and staring at the TV, I stood out on the porch and prayed to the Eaters, asked them to take his sins from him, chew them up and swallow them so he could make it to Heaven.
The moon hung low that night and there was mist about the treetops. I got no answer save for the sound of humming cicadas and the slow drag of my own heart beating.
+
We put my daddy in the ground a few days later. Gathered in the church where I was baptized and my parents married. Sang a couple hymns, clamped clammy hands and accepted condolences from distant relatives and schoolteachers, a few family members that came down from Pittsburgh for the funeral.
After they put him in the ground there was a reception in the basement of the church. We piled our plates with fried chicken thighs and the green slop of over-boiled collards, squares of cornbread, and crumbles of dry dressing. People talked while they ate, thick words through mouthfuls, chicken grease spattering pressed suits, napkins bunched and shoved into shirt collars. There was the clash of forks on plastic plates, chairs scraping across tile, a smell of Thanksgiving on the air thick and noxious as though the event was something to celebrate.
Across the room a woman spoke my daddy’s name, talked about the kind of man he was. “A good one,” she said. “He was a good man.”
I pushed back from the table. Stood up fast with my hands fisted. My chair hit the floor, clattered.
I felt eyes on me. A lot of them. Looks from around the room.
I started to say something about my daddy. About the how he fell into a bad way and the things he did to me and my mama. The reek of the food and the sick sounds of their chewing, meat torn off chicken bones, drinks guzzled, cups emptied. Porcine dining. Gluttony. I wanted to speak to all of it.
“Lydia,” said Mama, her fork bobbing in her hand, the prongs slick with gravy and dripping. “Please.” 
+
I left for the mountains the day after the funeral. Packed a hiking bag and three of the lunchboxes I used to carry as a kid, put ice packs at the bottom and filled it full of the leftovers from the funeral feast. I pulled my hiking boots out of the closet, a windbreaker, a thick wool scarf. I started on the mountain path a few hours before sunset, took one of the snaking dirt roads that lead to crags where the Eaters lurk. I walked with my pack bumping my spine, sweat beading along my brow, the sun slanting down through the treetops and dappling the forest floor. The sky was stinging blue.
A few does crossed my path as I walked. Rabbits ran wild through the thrush and thickets. I could hear the humming of bees on the air, the whisper of wind in the bare branches of the birch trees.
My daddy taught me how to hunt them when I was little. Bought me a 22-caliber rifle with brass bullets. Taught me how to the hold the butt of the gun to my shoulder, fire with one eye closed. For hours we’d crouch between the pines, or behind blackberry brambles waiting for rabbits to cross our paths. On the good days we’d come home with bunches of them, on the bad days we’d trudge down the mountain bone-tired and spitting. We didn’t have a lot of bad days back then.
Sometimes Daddy and I would walk the woods for the hell of it. I’d pocket pebbles and pine cones gnawed skinny by some hungry squirrel stock piling for wintertime. Once we found the skull of a possum in a nook between two tree roots. Daddy picked it up and brushed it clean, spit on it a bit to get the dirt off. Then he held it up to the sun so he could see the light shine through its eye sockets.
“Beautiful,” he said, and he handed it to me. “God’s work.”     
It was dark by the time I reached the top of the mountain. I limped on swelled feet, my toes thick and throbbing, sticky with sweat. Half out of my mind with tiredness.
Across a field of gravel and flowers I saw a cabin. A girl stood by it, dressed in a white sundress, barefoot despite the cold. She had her hair down around her shoulders, bruises and bite marks up her arms.
I took the lunchbox out of my backpack, held it out to her. “I’m here on behalf of my daddy. I want you to take his sins, all of them.”
She came forward, took the lunchbox from me, opened it up and unwrapped the cornbread, gnawed on a chicken leg, slurped up wet collard leaves. She chewed through the chicken bones and sucked the marrow out, licked the crumbs off the bottom of the box and bit into the ice packs. Ravenous.
A west wind swept along the mountainside and whistled through the pine needles. I felt the dirt shift under my feet; little pebbles loosed themselves and ricocheted down the mountainside. The girl kept eating, tore into the side of the lunchbox, bloodying her mouth as she worked through the metal. She swallowed the handle last, and wiped her mouth clean on the back of her hand, smearing blood and gravy.
The cicadas quit singing.
The wind went quiet.
I felt a sickness in my stomach like worms writhing.
“Hold still,” she said as she started towards me. “This is God’s work.” 
 
Alex Henderson is a college student and Speculative Fiction writer from the Low Country. When she’s not writing she likes to spend her time drafting novels, painting, and reading the scariest books she can get her hands on.

1.12 A Rich Man

ocean-cinemagraph
copyright 2015

A Rich Man

a story by

Veronica McDonald

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“Did you know, Pablo, that I am a rich man?” Damon stopped oiling the old man’s foot, and glanced up at the yellow eyes that were not looking at him. A rolled cigarette hung from Mr. Malcham’s white lips, the ash drifting listlessly onto the dirt floor. Damon had gotten used to the old man calling him Pablo, and garçon, and Felipe, and Juan. They were names caught in the filter of his decaying mind, while their context flushed itself into the rest of the melded mush. Damon picked up the glass bottle sitting next to him, and poured more of the yellow grease into his hands. He worked his fingers in between the old man’s toes. The nails were yellowed, cracked, long. The soles remained rough and calloused, no matter how much oil was applied. He stared at them, working his strong fingers over the translucent flesh, and wondered if the names were redolent of the days when Mr. Malcham traveled as a sailor. The old man often talked of crumbling societies, nameless European colonies no longer resembling their pasts nor acclimating to their proposed futures. But Damon held doubts that the old man ever sailed anywhere except to this island—their island, their nameless society—and that he was ever anything except the dying creature in front of him. He had gotten used to hearing strange things emanate from the old lips and cigarette smoke. The idea that Mr. Malcham had money peaked his interest, slightly. It was different from the other stories.
Damon adjusted his legs on the floor, ignoring the pins-and-needles that surged through his left foot all the way up his thigh. He looked out a small window which revealed nothing but a pink sky and fat purple clouds. He wondered if the rain would start again tonight. The fire in front of them was dying, but every once in awhile a flame would poke and lick the red ashes. They didn’t need the extra warmth it provided. The rains had not snuffed out the ongoing heat. It only seemed to make the hotness moist, and even more unbearable. Between the ashes and the cigarette smoke Damon felt as if there was no air to breathe. But the old people liked the fires, even in the hot weather. It took more and more to keep them warm the worse they became. Damon’s eyes fell on the fire and thought he saw a face. He blinked, trying to focus, but it was gone. It was not the first time he had seen a face there. Sometimes it was the face of one of his little brothers. Sometimes his mother. He tried to hold onto the face that was there now, but it was a fleeting vision, and it became the glowing ash again, moving and pulsating with heat. If Damon had been a few years younger he would have thought it was a ghost, but he no longer had a childlike faith in ghosts. He kicked his foot, trying to get rid of the awful sensation.
“I am a rich man, and everyone knows except for you.” The old man patted Damon on his black hair. Damon flinched. Mr. Malcham’s touch was odd and revolting. He visited all nine of the huts throughout the week, spending the night in several of the small rooms, and of the nine people he saw, Mr. Malcham was the only one who threw things at him, swore at him, swung at him with his walking stick, and denied him to sleep in his hut on the cot brought in for him by the nursemaids. The old man made it clear that Damon was to sleep outside his door, in the dirt, to keep out invisible intruders. A horrible smell filled Damon’s nose. He stifled the urge to gag. He had cleaned out the pot only minutes before, but this dirty man did not always find it necessary to use it. The smell and the heat were unbearable. Damon coughed and rubbed the cold fleshy foot harder, wishing he could crush it. He wished he could run. He would have run then, if there had been anywhere to go.
“Do you speak English, Pablo? Habla? Habla?” Damon could sense the rising irritability that lead to Mr. Malcham’s tantrums. He had found that usually it was better not to speak at all. He looked up into the yellow eyes, and shook his head ‘No.’
“Of course not.” The clouded eyes returned to the dying flames. “A man tells you he’s rich, and you continue to sit in the dirt massaging his feet, in a hut made for the poor, the old, the feeble…” Damon looked up from the nearly weightless foot. He watched as white spittle crept out of the corner of Mr. Malcham’s mouth and trickled down his chin. You’ll never know the difference between a rich man and a poor man because you’re beneath them all. You’ll never climb out of the dirt high enough to rid yourself of the stench of feet.” Damon clenched his teeth. He jumped to his feet, knocking over the bottle of oil. They both watched as the oil soaked into the floor, forming a dark mud stain. Damon looked into the old man’s face. He recognized the familiar rage. He was determined this time to meet it with his own, to finally stand up for himself, when he saw the anger melt away into a crooked smile. “Take it easy,” the old man said, though the yellow eyes still retained a remnant of the ire. “I tell you this, Pablo, because I am going to make you rich. All the money I have, all I own, I leave to you.” The aged lips twitched and the words began to slur. “When they take my body away on that boat, throw it to the sharks as if it never meant anything, you’ll own it all.” Damon continued to stare at him, his expression blank. His heart was still pounding from his new found rebellion. “But all the money in the world won’t teach you the difference,” Mr. Malcham said quietly, the smile still lingering on his white lips, the cigarette still dangling.
Damon’s mind raced, thinking if he should speak, when a heavy knock on the door interrupted them. “Come in!” said Mr. Malcham. As the words left his lips, he grabbed Damon’s hand with his arthritic fingers and shoved something warm and hard into his palm. Damon pulled away and saw that it was a gold coin. He froze. “Come in! Come in for God’s sake!” Mr. Malcham spoke loudly, but there was no malice in his voice. Damon saw that the smile had returned, curling at the edges of the white lips which were bubbling and pushing out the stub of the cigarette. Damon heard the lips mumble wordless somethings, but he couldn’t make them out. He thought the knocking was one of the nursemaids, bringing water, or logs for the fire. He was surprised to see a large body filling the frame of the bamboo door, blocking out the dying pink light. The man was unlike anyone Damon had ever seen on the island, though there was a vague familiarity about him. A broad nose and stern mouth. It was the lips, white and firm, that were familiar. The man’s eyes were a piercing blue, almost white, and cut through the shadowy darkness of the hut as if radiating their own sharp light. Damon was dazzled by the eyes which were so full of life. He had gotten used to the yellow eyes of the dying, and the glazed look of those lost in memory. The man walked into the room with a heavy step. Damon noticed that his feet were not bare. He wore thick brown boots that were covered in dust and dirt. It had been a long time since Damon had seen shoes of any kind. They were a luxury, nearly extinct. He would remember such a man if he had seen him on the island. Then he remembered that, after all this time, he had not seen much of the island. Since his arrival, he had been confined in the quarters for the separate community. He could not believe that there were other people here, other men, that were not weak and crippled and dying. The man’s light hair was swept back and wet-looking, though loose strands, beaded with sweat, hung in front of his eyes. His face was shaven, but stubbled. He was dressed in a button-down shirt that fell open at his chest, revealing tangles of blonde hair underneath. Dark, wet patches stained the shirt at his underarms. His desperate look made Damon nervous.
“Father.” The word fell out of his mouth as he dropped at the old man’s feet. As his knees hit the dirt, Damon backed away, not sure if the man had seen him standing there. He held onto the coin tightly. He had almost forgotten it. The weight of it sunk into his mind. He no longer cared who the stranger was, nor why he was here.
“Sebastian.” The old lips were no longer inhibited by the cigarette. “You’ve come.” Mr. Malcham’s words were quiet and solemn, his small smile replaced with inexplicable gravity.
Damon continued to back away into a corner of the room, giving the two men as much space as possible. The coin. He allowed himself to glance at it quickly. Damon had never seen a gold coin, but he recognized the type and the similar look it shared with the coins from his childhood away from the island. With his brothers and mother. Small coins wrapped in cloth thin as tissue and kept in a jar behind the bed. The island had no currency. No one on the island had coins, and yet this old man living in a filthy hut had given him one. It did not mean much on the island, but if Damon could leave… if he could find a way to get more, find a boat, find his way back…
“I’ve been away. It took them some time to find me, you understand that, but I’m here now.”
“Drifting at sea, among the hard-to-find.” The old man’s word were full of memory.
“Yes, I’ve been at sea, father. Things are… falling apart.” Sebastian’s words hesitated, paused, drifted. His mind was not here with the old man. Then he came back. The alert blue eyes searched frantically, trying to cut through the murk of the yellow clouds. “I needed to find more men. For protection. Just a few strong bodies to stop some of the trouble here. More… women, too.”
Damon allowed the words between the men float into his ears without thinking about their meaning. The coin occupied his mind, sat there like a heavy lump that needed tending. The old man said he was rich. He said that he would leave Damon everything. The stench returned to his nostrils, more potent than before, countering the idea that any semblance of truth could be uttered by that stinking, wrinkled body. If Damon wanted the old man’s money, he would have to search the hut and take it.
Sebastian held his hands in front of his face. “Bring more people, bring control. Outsiders, new faces, it helps sometimes, I know it does. I know you never believed that, but I wanted to prove you wrong. I had dreams for this place, too.” Sebastian took his hands away, and lowered his voice. “It’s done nothing but make the others angry. More mouths to feed.” His voice continued to drop until it was nothing more than a whisper. “There are talks of slavery. Of immoralities around every corner. They cannot see beyond themselves. They’re saying this place is Hell itself.”
Damon’s eyes darted, assessing the room. It was nearly bare. In one corner, a small bed with a thin rumpled blanket and a heron-feathered pillow. Next to the bed, on the floor, the metal pot crusted with a thin layer of rust. Off to the side, near the wall, a small wooden table where some flies circled and danced around the delicate fish bones on Mr. Malcham’s dinner plate. A bookcase sat near the bed, consisting of two driftwood shelves nailed clumsily into the bamboo. One shelf lay bare. The top one held four thin paperbacks, water-warped and yellow, and a thick hardcover, old and black, with traces of gold letters no longer legible. It was frequently touched, for it had no dust on its cover. There was the rocking chair where Mr. Malcham sat. It creaked with every slight movement as the air between the two men grew thick and intense. And there was the fireplace. It was more of a stone niche with a hole in the roof to ventilate the rising smoke. A flame flicked its pointed tongue. And there was the unused cot—a bare hand-stitched mattress on a bamboo frame—sitting blank in the corner. There was nothing else. There was nothing along the walls, not even a drawing or one of the berry paintings some of the hut-dwellers liked to collect from the nursemaids. He decided it would have to be the bed, or behind the books. It wouldn’t take long to search both. Damon began to move and then stopped. He heard a noise outside the window behind him.
“They’re coming, father.”
Damon thought it was the rain starting again, after finally stopping for a few hours. He cursed to himself until he realized it was voices. Many voices, muffled, rising and falling, sounding as if the ocean had made its way to the huts and was reaching for them. He held the coin tighter, and shifted away from the window.
“They want to hear it from your lips. What’s going to happen to this place. They tolerated it when you brought in orphans for labor.” Mr. Malcham coughed violently, and did not bother to cover the phlegm flying out of his mouth. Sebastian backed away with a disgusted look that quickly fell back into desperation. He dropped his head and closed his eyes. “They didn’t know if it was right, but they tolerated it. The new faces helped, and we needed the extra hands.” His eyes darted to Damon, then turned back to the old man. “They tolerated much more after that. But now, the community is hungry. The rain keeps coming. Only one of our supply boats has returned.” Sebastian stopped. The voices were getting louder, a dull buzz that began to permeate the walls around them. “People are… taking things. From each other.” The blue eyes regained their intensity. Damon did not know what was happening, but he knew that he had to stay focused. If Sebastian distracted Mr. Malcham long enough, he could make his way to the bed, sit down. Feel around. “The women… they’re not safe.” Sebastian stumbled over his words. Sweat fell off his hair onto his cheeks. “They want to leave, but I can’t allow it. There’s only one boat now. There’s too many of us, and we cannot leave people behind.”
“What is it you want from me, Sebastian,” the old man said, his yellow eyes blank and staring at the wall, seeing nothing.
“Tell them I’m in charge. They need order. They need a leader. They have to hear it from your lips.” Sebastian moved closer to the old man. He hesitated, and then put his hand on his father’s clenched fist. Mr. Malcham did not seem to notice. Damon sat down on the bed. “You are still the authority here. That never changed. Even though you’re here, in the… separate community, that never changed.”
Damon thought he heard a woman’s scream outside, among the voices. But it was muffled. Far away. His hand searched under the pillow as he kept his eyes on Sebastian.
“And what will you do to end the chaos?”
Sebastian said nothing, but stared at the old man with wide eyes, lingering on his lips the formations of words he wanted to say. Damon reached his hand under the mattress, careful not to let his movements show. He wished they would leave the room, but he knew Mr. Malcham rarely left his rocking chair. The voices sounded as if they were right outside the door now. They pulsated and cracked like the glowing ashes of the fire.
“Tell them. Please.” Sebastian rubbed sweat from his forehead with his palm. The tone of his voice made Damon look up, into his face, his eyes still glowing in the shadows. “There will be nothing left.”
“There is nothing left.” Mr. Malcham’s voice softened for a moment. “I know why you were out to sea, among the hard-to-find. The man grows, the man knows, but he cannot reap what the other man sows.” The old man practically spat the words into Sebastian’s face. “You want my money. You want this island.” Mr. Malcham coughed again, violently, more phlegm flying. “You want to take my beautiful dreams, and turn them into your lesser fantasies.” Sebastian backed away with a look of horror. “Let them die with me.” The old lips trembled. Spit dribbled down the prickles of the white chin. The yellow eyes widened, then squinted, as if there were thoughts or dreams of something far away. The voices faded, then grew, pulsated. “Let them all die.” Sebastian stood up and turned his back to his father, lowering his head to face the ashes. He ran both hands over his face.
Damon had his hand on the thick book on the bookshelf, the tips of his fingers touching the smooth black cover, when there came a pounding on the door. The moment held a thick silence. The banging resounded again, the door bending and threatening to shatter into pieces. Damon felt darkness descending on them, moving around them, as if something outside shifted around the hut, blocking the pink light coming from the cracks in the bamboo. Sebastian jumped with every knock, but did not acknowledge it. Instead, he turned to his father, his eyes pleading. Mr. Malcham did not look at him, but he nodded, his face bobbing loosely in the thick air. “I’ll see them. I’m ready.”
Behind the large book, Damon found it. A small leather bag, heavy in his hands. He pulled it fast behind his back. The jangling of the metal sounded deafening even though the men did not react. He waited a moment for his heartbeat to slow, then he felt around inside with his fingers. Coins. It was not the piles of riches that Mr. Malcham would have him believe, but it would be enough. Damon could not keep the smile from his lips. He would have to leave tonight—right now. As soon as Sebastian left, he would follow him to the supply ship, sneak on. Damon looked up and saw that the old man was walking out of the room, holding onto his son’s arm. They opened the door. A cacophony of voices reached their pitch. His heart jumped when he saw the pile of men’s faces, mean looking and yellow with firelight. He kept the bag behind his back as he walked towards the door, keeping a safe distance and peeking around the frame. Mr. Malcham had his walking stick in one hand and Sebastian’s arm in the other. His voice permeated the thick air, filled it slowly and deliberately, captivating the attention of the mob of men outside, silencing their crackling voices. Damon did not hear the beginning of Mr. Malcham’s speech, his ears and mind buzzing with excitement, but now the words were starting to come into focus and form meaning.
“I brought you comfort and new life. And I have lived long enough to see you all strangle the good out of this place.” Damon moved into the doorway, trying to hear better, trying to understand why everyone was listening to the old man, wondering what they wanted with him.
As soon as Damon took one step out of the hut, Mr. Malcham turned around. He gazed at Damon, his yellow eyes full of a strange vitality that made Damon’s heart pound. “I have found my replacement! His name is Pablo! He smells of you all! He smells of feet! He reeks of the feet of this island! His hands are coated in a permanent grease that can never be washed off!” The old man started laughing, a horrible screeching laugh. He turned back to the confused and shocked faces. “I leave everything to him, to cover everything in his grease, in his smell, in his stench! He is the rich man now! He is the one that I leave for you to strangle with your greed!”
The angry voices returned all at once. One man threw an object that hit Mr. Malcham on the shoulder. Sebastian seemed shocked, but before he could react, a rock hit Mr. Malcham’s forehead, knocking him to the ground. Sebastian tried to pick him up, yelling unclear things at the men, but the mob surrounded them. Damon could not believe how many men there were, and could not understand what was happening. A rock whizzed by his ear. It startled him and caused him to trip. He landed clumsily on the ground. All he could see were feet. Bare feet, glistening with oil and mud and sand, stampeding the old man, running over his sick body, kicking him, stomping him, bloodying their soles on the fragile-looking skin that tore like paper. Damon knew he should move, that he should run, but all he could think about was the shining oil on the feet. It glistened in the yellow torchlight and dying pink. It became more slick with blood. He wondered how something so smooth could tear skin like paper. He scrambled up and ran. He ran through the forest of palms, heading towards the dock he had seen many times before. There was a boat there. He and the other laborers would use it for fishing when the larger community denied them food, but mostly it was there to row out the dead, row them out to the reefs, to the sharks, not wanting bodies, or parts of bodies, to wash back up onto shore. He could hear feet behind him, running heavily, drunkenly. He would not look back, but he could see them in his mind, oiled and shining, covered in the old man’s blood, the grease catching the sand and dirt as they stumbled after him. The feet grew closer. Closer. Heavy, stomping, fast. He let a scream escape his lips as he came up to the dock, convinced in his mind that he wouldn’t make it. He could already feel the oiled flesh touching his skin, his face, his neck. Tearing his skin like paper. Greasy calluses stomping out what was left of this life. He fell headfirst into the fishing boat, a simple wooden row boat with two unmatched oars. He let himself look up as he pushed off the dock, his eyes searching frantically along the water and back the trees behind it, but whoever had been following him was not there. He felt eyes all over him. Flashes of the mob’s oiled feet covered in blood filled his vision until he could see nothing else. He rowed away with his back to the vastness into which he traveled. The island was in front of him, still immense though he wished it to be a speck. The boat sounded hollow and fragile as it scraped the top of the reef, reminding him that he had never rowed this far before. He laughed to himself. The laugh started small, and then grew louder and deeper until he had to drop the oars because his tight stomach and cheeks hurt from laughing so hard. I now own all that the old man had, and all that I see before me, he thought. His laughter convulsed his body again. “There is no difference,” he said aloud. His laughing slowly ceased. His hard feet, gritty and rough with sand and dried mud, knocked against the only item in the boat besides himself, the leather bag with Mr. Malcham’s coins. He picked up the oars and let his mounting sobs dominate all sounds of laughter. “There is no difference.”
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Veronica McDonald received her MA in Literature from American University in Washington D.C. She grew up in New England, but now moves around the country every few years. She is currently working on short stories and a novel while wrestling two rambunctious toddlers.

1.11 Scarecrow

crow

copyright 2015

Scarecrow

a story by

Andrew Davis

 
He would take anything Pa had to offer. He would be our scarecrow. Pa led him to the cross.
It was not until he hung above the corn did I notice his gauntness and tufts of yellow hair abandoning him strand by strand. He strained. I believed the crows would outlast him.
*
Pa dumped a glass of water on my face. “You have your chores,” he said.
“Is it a dream?” I asked. “Is it still here?”
“What?”
“The scarecrow,” I said.
“He is.”
Pa gave me a pail of cold oatmeal and I fed him by hooking the pail’s handle onto a stick. He slurped like a horse while his stomach swelled. I loosened his rope belt when he asked. “Better,” he said. “I needed that.”
A few crows perched on his shoulders. He cawed and they almost flew into one another.
We laughed and I asked, “Need anything else?”
“Water.” His voice crackled. He gulped as he drank. “Good,” he said.
After I did my chores, I visited the scarecrow again. I asked if he ever left the cross. He told me no, so I asked how he did all the things ordinary people did and he said, “That’s my secret,” and he laughed. But I did not.
For the next few days, our visits went the same. I never got him to talk much about his life. He told me he had seen the country by riding the rails. He loved Maine because of the seafood that came from the Atlantic. He would go back one day. I asked, “Why didn’t you go there instead of coming here?”
“I needed a good, long break before I deserved it again,” he said.
I nodded, but I didn’t understand, so at dinner I asked Pa what the scarecrow could have meant. He said, “Mind yourself. Leave that man alone. He’ll be moving along soon.”
It was late and I could not sleep. The man was still out there. He was not going anywhere.
I sneaked through the corn. The moon guided me to him. “Where are you really from?” I startled him. I had not known he could sleep with his eyes open.
“You should be asleep,” he said.
“I want to know where you’re from.”
The scarecrow looked up. The stars were still. “From there,” he said. He let his head fall. “Or, maybe from down there.” He looked at me. “Or, maybe I am where I’m supposed to be, waiting, making sure the crows don’t bother you and your father.”
I shook my head. “You lie. You’re probably some kind of thief.” I kicked the cross. He grinned, and, for the first time, I saw he only had a few teeth. “Tell me the truth, tell me your secrets,” I said.
“They wouldn’t be secrets if I told you. And, I have told you the truth.”
“Tell me just one secret.”
“Maybe I can’t,” he said. “Maybe I made a promise to someone.”
“Who?”
He lifted his head in a way that gave him a cruel expression. “Someone you don’t want to know.”
Several crows landed on his arms and pecked at his skin. He did not make a sound. His eyes were open but cold and stiff and soon I lost sight of his breath. I was scared. Before I ran home, before I decided to hide under my sheets instead of telling Pa, the scarecrow howled, “Go! Before we get you!”
*
Pa ripped the covers off and shook me. “Get up.” I tripped over my feet as he led me to the cross. The morning sun was strung. “Where did he go?”
I wanted tell him what the scarecrow had said, but I didn’t. “I don’t know,” I said.
“I wanted to pay the man for his services,” Pa said. “I haven’t seen one crow.”
I ran my hands along the wood, checking for secret buttons. Secrets only the scarecrow could know. I wanted to know more, but I had a feeling that it was good I did not. I climbed and posed just like the man had.
Pa shielded his eyes from the morning light. “Son, what are you doing?”
“Maybe he was sick and had to leave,” I said.
“Maybe.”
“Pa, how can a man do such work if he’s sick?”
“Sometimes, he don’t have a choice.”
A crow landed on my arm. “Pa?”
He grinned like the scarecrow. “Maybe he knew he wasn’t cut out for scaring away the death of our crop.”

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Andrew Davis lives in Lowell, Massachusetts. He has contributed to The Apeiron Review, The Oddville Press, Black Heart Magazine, and The Rain, Party, & Disaster Society.

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‘When I wrote this story, I started thinking of the guy on the cross as a flawed outsider who was being pulled between Heaven and Hell. I imagined the Grim Reaper, but a more human representation of Death, and I started wondering what perspective a character like that might have. For people, Death is scary and we have all sorts of thoughts about it and its purpose, so I thought it would be interesting to explore the idea of Death as being more of a misunderstood protector, one without fancy armor or big Hollywood effect. Just a loner that lives so simple it seems brutal to the rest of us. I think the child allows the feel to be more curious, hopeful, and innocent.’

1.10 Paris In Achromatism

Cinemagraph-Paris-BW

copyright 2015

Paris In Achromatism

a story by

Henry Brasater

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Allister Farrington turned, and looked back at the picture from which he had just emerged into his living room. Paris scene. Watercolor sketch by Charles Demuth. A painting Farrington had not found listed in any of Demuth’s works when he returned from Paris to his residence at Chestnut Village in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Here is what he remembered…
Farrington had purchased the watercolor for a song one sunny afternoon as he walked out of the Louvre. He immediately encountered a wizened man holding a painting in each hand and in a weakened voice asking anyone within hearing distance: “Vous souhaitez une peinture de la ville lumiere reelle?” Behind the man was a hodge-podge of watercolor and oil paintings, all resting against a black iron fence running near the museum side exit. The paintings showed faded or darkened pigments that once must have been bright, but now were in varied stages of deterioration on torn canvas or heavy paper, all nailed to frames. The paintings looked old to Farrington, but, were they really? ‘After all,’ he thought, ‘this is Paris. I’m in the right place to be duped!
Etes-vous certain?” the old man asked as Farrington handed francs to the man and took hold of a watercolor that had caught his fancy. “Il n’y a aucun retour, Monsieur,” the old man said with a twinkle in his eye, that in an instance suggested malevolence.
Walking away, Farrington frowned, thinking the old coot might be slightly off his rocker! Farrington looked at his wrist watch and hurried on. His schedule called for a rendezvous with a lady who had caught his eye in the hotel elevator, and who had subsequently accepted his invitation to dinner. He had spent more time than planned in the Louvre, delayed by a group of Japanese tourists who insisted on taking photos of the Mona Lisa with camera flashes going off all over the place. Time was taken up by a female attendant sitting to one side of Leonardo’s famous painting, and who would flick a light switch on the wall so that no one could see the enigmatic lady encased in the box with a glass front cover. She would call out to the Japanese: “Arretez les flashs! Arretez, au nom de cet art precieux!
Farrington walked to the Rue d’Alger where earlier in the day he had passed a Bureau de poste. Inside, he used what high school French that he could remember and asked if they had paper and string to wrap his purchase to mail home. With some French mixed with English and much gesturing of hands, Farrington was finally able to purchase paper and string at what he considered to be an outrageous price. He proceeded to wrap his new acquisition and half-hour later emerged from the building, pleased that he had sent a small watercolor to himself in Lancaster from Seine City. He smiled at his little impromptu play on words, retracing his steps of earlier in the day to Place Vendome where he could catch a bus that would take him back to the Hotel de Paris Nord. Farrington had barely glanced at the faded watercolor, but looked forward to having all of the time in the world to study it when he returned home.
Several days later, Farrington’s self-mailed package from Paris was waiting for him in the Chestnut Village mail room. He sat in the retirement community’s main entrance foyer and opened the fourteen-by-sixteen flat package.
“What you got there, Allister? A poster?” On his way to the mail room, Morgan
Childress stopped and stood in front of Farrington’s chair.
“Watercolor,” Farrington said as he finished unwrapping the sketch, hoping that there was no damage to it. “Bought in Paris.” He frowned. Had the picture faded since he purchased it from the old man on the street outside the Louvre? And the colors? What had happened to the faded pastel colors that had caught his eye, causing him to make the purchase?
“Let’s see!” Childress said, moving his body and scrunching his neck around to look down at the painting. “It’s…it’s….”
“…Faded,” Farrington finished for his friend.
“Well…but…it’s all in…gray? That’s okay,” Childress hastened to add. “Almost all gray—maybe I see a bit of blue, there…and…is that a suggestion of pink?” Childress pointed.
“I…think it is,” Farrington said with not a little consternation in his voice. It was only a sketch. Not a finished production. But, it had suited his muse to look upon it. As a matter of fact—
—Sitting, while Childress waved and went on his way, Farrington now found himself entranced with the achromatic watercolor that he held out at arm’s length. It was as though some of the buildings became more than two-dimensional, almost straining to move out of the page! Perhaps he had drunk one cup of coffee too many at breakfast! He did feel a bit fuzzy. Maybe his overseas trip had been more fatiguing than expected. Farrington folded the brown wrapping paper loosely about the sketch, took up the string and rushed to his apartment.
A few minutes later, the Paris watercolor sketch was on Farrington’s living room floor, propped up against his favorite recliner. On hands and knees, Farrington looked intently for what remnants he could find of colors that had receded into near oblivion. He looked hard at what was now gray and black lines of suggested buildings along a street with the Tour Eiffel in a distant background. In the foreground…in the foreground was a familiar looking dark figure at a wrought iron fence; the old man from whom the painting had been purchased!
But… but… he was not in the painting when I purchased it! Was he?
Mouth opened quizzically, Farrington leaned in toward the sketch. Rather, he found his mind and body merging into the painting….Until he found himself standing next to a wrought iron fence beside the Louvre. He looked about at people going to and fro. Weathered two-dimensional art works were resting haphazardly and looking poster-like against the fence. Farrington’s head bobbed and his body turned this way and that, searching for the old man who had sold him the watercolor, and whose figure was presented foursquare in the sketch back home on his living room floor.
“Hey, bub! Er these things fer sale, pardner?’ The Texas accent startled Farrington.
Ce qui?” Farrington found himself asking.
“Fer sale? Parlays vous ‘merry-can?”
“I speak English,” Farrington stammered. He continued looking about for the old man.
“Hey, bub! I asked yuh, how much fer this’n? You sellin’em, ain’tcha?”
It was then that Farrington looked down at his clothes: old, dirty, tattered and with scuffed and torn shoes on his feet. He brought his arms up closer to his face to examine the sleeves on the ragged coat that he wore. He touched his face and felt several days—weeks?—of beard. He smelled himself. He needed a bath. He attempted to stand straighter, taller. He could not straighten himself.
Farrington was that old man in the fading pen and ink and watercolor, and from whom he had purchased the sketch several days ago! It was only days ago, wasn’t it? The time had gone awry in his mind.
Farrington put out a hand in supplication to God, and into which, the Texan put a wad of francs and picked up a picture that he handed to the lady with him. They walked away with the Texan saying: “…Must have somethin’ matter with’m!”
Now, more people were crowding around him and handing him money and taking paintings of their choice.
He froze in place, voiceless, with both hands remaining outstretched in bewilderment.
A thought slammed through Ferrington’s mind: ‘After all, this is Paris….’
But, Farrington wanted to return home, to America and his comfortable apartment and surroundings at Chestnut Village retirement community. How could that be accomplished? He was in Paris. No doubt about that. And had moved from the United States to France in a nano-second. Desperate, he could think of only one thing to do in order to extricate himself from this bereft of reason situation. He took off running! He ran to the Rue de Rivoli and straight toward a large truck bearing down on him. He did not care what happened now. Better to be dead than this sort of life experience! He ran and ran and ran right into the truck. He felt nothing, heard nothing, and for a split-second saw only shapes in aspic. Until….
Allister Ferrington tumbled out onto his living room floor, not a little dazed. He lay heaving for breath. Too weak, too sick to move for a minute. Then, a strong compulsion came over him to roll over and look at the Paris watercolor.
Nausea returned. The watercolor now held no suggestions of fading colors, only grays to near blacks. But it was not drab. Most startling of all, the painting had changed from a traditional rendering of a Paris street, to flat planes juxtaposed against and over and under and beside one another! There was even a half-circle locked in amongst straight planes. The half-circle… the half-circle: ‘a partial face of the Mona Lisa?’ He had to imagine buildings, people, the very street featured in the painting. And the figure of the old man—of himself?—could barely be discerned; it was dark and in a squared-off manner against what might be perceived as a fence. Squinting his eyes, Farrington viewed a poster-like painting; it reflected precision. ‘Probably done when Demuth was at the Academie Julian,’ Farrington thought. The septuagenarian leaned forward—not too close—attempting to detect whether or not he saw anything resembling his own face in that dark plane of a man who must be the seller of pictures.
In a quandary, Farrington sat on the floor for many minutes. What had happened? What was this bizarre thing going on? He finally rose, not looking at the sketch. A good night’s sleep might set things right.
The next morning’s eggs were too hard, the bacon greasy, toast was burned and the coffee tasted like dishwater looked. He sat back in his Chestnut Village café chair, recalling croissants with strong, flavorful coffee and a piece of cheese as a sufficient breakfast in the Parisian spring time that he had recently experienced. This led him to make comparisons between Lancaster’s narrow, stultifying horizons, and Parisian social freedom accompanied by a constant metaphorical breath of intellectual fresh air.
Parles-tu francais?” Farrington asked the Puerto Rican waitress who was clearing his table. “Allez-vous souvent a l’Opera de Paris? Notre Dame? Montmartre?
Que?” the girl responded sharply. “Que estas hablando?” As she walked away with a heavy tray of dirty dishes, she added: “Viejo loco!
He sighed. It was then that he made a momentous decision, for a widower and retired fuel oil truck driver.
Before lunch, Allister Farrington was in the Chestnut Village Park, desperately clutching under one arm a flat, brown parcel bound loosely in white string. He walked vigorously on the macadamized walkway in anticipation of what he hoped would soon happen. Again. The experience in his apartment was one thing; it was something else to try the same out of doors. He headed toward the park pond and gazebo beside it.
Alone in the gazebo, Farrington unwrapped the achromatic watercolor sketch from Paris. He propped it up on a bench that went around inside the structure except for the entrance way. Allister Farrington looked one last time over the grounds of Chestnut Village. He took in a deep breath and walked directly into the sketch.
A day later, Chestnut Village administrators and Lancaster police searched for Allister Farrington. The only possible clue—not recognized as such—was found in the gazebo by the pond: a blank piece of heavy and aged paper nailed to a worm eaten wooden frame.
A lone, slightly bent figure in tattered clothing watched from a line of evergreens bordering the western edge of Chestnut Village. After several minutes, he moved away with the aid of a walking stick. ‘C’est que, comme on dit!’ he said aloud to himself, and walked on into Lancaster, the Red Rose City.
+
Henry Brasater was a radio-television newsman before going into academia. His PhD is in Rhetoric & Public Address. He has taught at various colleges and universities, including Cairo University as a Fulbright Senior Lecturer. Brasater’s stories are published in ezines, print anthologies, and magazines. His novels are: Nondum, Dead Guns Press; and Upheaval, Spanking Pulp Press. His nonfiction book, A. E. van Vogt: Science Fantasy’s Icon, is available from Booklocker and Amazon.

1.9 Paraskeva’s Ghost

Paraskeva

copyright 2015

Paraskeva’s Ghost

a story by

Stefani Christova

 
There she was again, not in the middle of my room, her usual spot, but slightly to the side, as if to cause as much damage to the carpet as possible with the inexhaustible water dripping from her clothes and hair. For a moment, I wondered which less disturbing to look at—her swollen fingers bent in unnatural angles with shards of bone protruding through the skin, or her bruised legs, a hose twisted around one ankle, the soaked rim of her dress leaking streaks of indigo-blue color down her pasty flesh. For sure, it was not her head, and closing my eyes wasn’t an option. When I did that last night, she came to stand above me, and the blood squirting from the wound on her forehead mixed with the mud in her hair and came down on my face in long, sticky drops. I had jumped out of my bed and begged her to move away so she wouldn’t ruin my pillow and sheets, but she stood there for the rest of her visit.
“How may I help you?” I asked, not expecting an answer—she hasn’t spoken once in the previous five nights—but out of inbred propriety. I so wished Grandma were home. Maybe she would know who this woman was and why her ghost had come to bother me. But Grandma was enjoying her mineral baths, and I alone had to deal with all this, every night playing guessing games, every morning dabbing the muddy carpet with towels, and mopping the water from the hardwood floors in the entry and the living room. I had to agree that it was polite for a ghost to enter through the front door, but on the other hand, I was afraid that the moisture would lift the parquet pieces and ruin the floors. Which reminded me to ask the ghost a favor.
“Excuse me, ma’am. Would you mind draping yourself with the blanket over there?”
She stared at me with her usual stare, blank and solemn at the same time, not giving any indication she had heard me. I knew better than to get angry. However, the situation was starting to wear me out.
I took a deep breath and spoke slowly, carefully enunciating each word, trying not to shout. “Who-are-you? What-do-you-want-from-me?”
The woman lifted a hand to her face and moaned. I couldn’t understand what she meant; each of her broken fingers pointed in a different direction.
“What?” This time I shouted. “Open your mouth and speak up, damn it!”
She opened her mouth. A dense flow of hemorrhaged blood, carrying chunks of flesh and broken teeth, spilled down her chin.
That served me right.
“Sorry…I am very sorry. Please close your mouth. Ma’am, please. Maybe you could nod?”
The woman closed her mouth and nodded.
“Thank you,” I said, and went on asking my questions. Was I supposed to know her, was she a relation of mine, did she want dry clothes or anything to eat (I was smart enough to not offer her water), and did she have a message for somebody, to all of which she slowly shook her head. I wished she would wipe the blood from her chin, but she didn’t.
Finally, the first rooster crowed, and before the rest of them had a chance to join in, the ghost was gone. I thought for a moment about the soaked carpet and the wet floors, but couldn’t make myself get up and start cleaning. Tomorrow I would put plastic sheets all the way from the front door to my room, three feet wide at least.
The next morning I woke at ten. The sun had just reached the damp spot on the carpet, and greenish vapors filled the room. The air was rich with smells of acidic soil, stale water, blooming cattails and manna grass. The tang of decomposing matter mixed with the sweet fragrance of calamus leaves, reminding me of the marshes along the river.
I cleaned the mess, took a shower, and after opening all windows and interior doors, and turning on the fan in the living room, I left the house.
Mrs. Quince, the next-door neighbor, had already installed her scrawny self at her watching post—on the front porch of her house, partially hidden behind the boxes with begonias. She didn’t notice me. She seemed to be nodding off.
Farther along the street, Mr. K. Bayo and Mr. J. Bayo, the twins, were fighting dandelions on their front lawn. They appeared more inept then usual, and seeing me, used the opportunity to abandon the weeds. They crossed the lawn with their identical, jerky gaits and came to a tentative halt in the shade of the magnolia tree.
“Mrs. Quince is asleep on her porch, and you don’t look your cheerful selves,” I said. “Did something happen?”
“Oh, nothing much,” Mr. K. Bayo, the older twin, said, wiping his bald dome with a huge, checkered handkerchief. “Only the masons made an ungodly amount of noise last night, and no one in the neighborhood got enough sleep. I mean us, the oldsters. You probably slept through all the ‘..more sand…more bricks…pass the mortar hoe’, but at some point I was about to be rude and tell them to shut up.”
“Talking about ghosts, I had a little problem myself. Do you happen to know about a woman who drowned in the area?”
“Many people, both men and women, drowned in the time of the flood, nineteen-fifty-seven,” Mr. K. Bayo said. Being the older of the two, he did all the talking. “Can you tell by her clothes if she lived then?”
“No. Maybe… Her clothes are plastered about her body, and so wet, I couldn’t even tell what color they had been. And I’ve never heard of any of the flood victims haunting the town. It seems kind of late to start doing so after more than fifty years, don’t you think?”
“You should’ve asked her,” Mr. J. Bayo said all of a sudden. His voice sounded stronger and clearer than the voice of his brother, as if he had preserved it by not using it.
It took me awhile to overcome my surprise. “I did ask her. She wouldn’t tell me anything. Most of all, I want to know what made her choose our house. I am sure there has been a mistake.”
“Hardly a mistake,” Mr. J. Bayo said. “The only two houses in town not haunted presently are yours and Mrs. Quince’s. Do you think anyone, living or otherwise, would want to move in with Mrs. Quince?”
“That’s a good point, but… Can’t you take her? You have only your mum’s ghost to haunt you, don’t you?”
“It won’t work,” Mr. J. Bayo said, almost wistfully. “Mum doesn’t get along with girls, and—”
Mr. K. Bayo coughed. It sounded as if he was trying to clear his throat of rusty nails. “Off with you, Reni. Didn’t you say you are on your way to the library?” he said, and turned to his brother, “Come on, Jeleb. The heat is insufferable. I can barely stand on my legs.”
They went into the house, and I went to the library where I asked Miss Mona for the Statistics, Particulars, and Curiosities of Kirpich by the locally renowned historian, St. Kvasin.
“Kirpich is a small picturesque town in the foothills of the Balkan Mountains,” I read. “It has 15,678 inhabitants according to the last count (1968.) The citizens think they are just as refined and sophisticated as the people living in cities with populations of up to 100,000. Which is probably true.” It went like that for about twenty pages before I reached the part that interested me. “The town has one of the largest per capita ghost manifestations. No less than two thousand five hundred ghosts haunt residences and public areas. For a detailed description and haunting habits, see Appendix B.”
I leafed to Appendix B and spent an hour-and-a-half going through the list. The masons were classified under “Fratricides, Double, Trivial.” The two brothers had decided to build a house together, on the lot next to Mrs. Quince’s house—the lot stood empty since—but had quarreled before the walls were all the way up and killed each other with their masonry tools. Now their ghosts could be heard on clear nights going about finishing the house, shouting orders and requests to each other and robbing a whole neighborhood of peaceful sleep.
Fatima, the other communal ghost, was listed under “Suicides, Love, Unshared.”
The coachman that cruised the streets from one end of the town to the other, beating his horses mercilessly, was under “Revenges, Love, Lost.” I disliked his ghost, but thankfully, it was easy to avoid a chance encounter—wheels screeched, horseshoes met the asphalt casting sparks, dogs howled in its wake.
I found twenty-six cases of death by drowning, accidental and intentional, none of which referred to the ghost in my room.
The Kirpich Times Call was housed just two blocks from the library. I walked there and placed an ad to appear for the next three days in Lost & Found: “A ghost of a drowned woman, circa nineteen-fifty-seven. Any information appreciated. Reward.”
Imagine who called the next day? My grandmother. “Why didn’t you tell me about the ghost?” she asked.
“How did you hear about it?”
“Well, what do you think? We have computers in the lobby—actually, one computer, the other one is always broken—and I read the paper online every morning.”
“Grandma, I didn’t want to spoil your vacation, but since you know already…” I told her all about the ghost, the wet clothes, the puffy flesh, the twigs in her hair. I skipped the part with the muddy water dripping onto the floors.
“Twigs in her hair? What was her hair like?” Grandma asked.
“Hmm, loose, maybe dark.”
“What do you mean by maybe?”
“I don’t know. She has mud all over—”
“Clothes?”
“Knee-length, three-quarter sleeves.”
“It doesn’t ring a bell,” Grandma said, and then her voice became muffled as if she had covered the phone to talk to somebody there. When I thought we had been disconnected, she spoke with a high-pitched, girlish voice I almost didn’t recognized, “Sorry, dear, my bingo is starting in a minute. Just keep the ghost happy until I come home. Talk to you soon.”
She called again in the evening, just as I was starting to fret. “Check with the Vlaevs,” she said. “River Street Number 80, second house east of the dike. The old Vlaev lost his wife in the flood. No one blamed him—he couldn’t swim, and even though the water was only waist-high, the current was really strong down there. The rumors were that he had climbed up a pear tree, watching from there as the water carried away his wife, screaming and begging for help. He never admitted being haunted, but still, it’s worth a try.”
“Thanks, Grandma.”
“Ciao, dear. See you on Wednesday.”
“I thought you were coming back tomorrow!”
“Change of plans. Need to practice my samba a bit more,” she said, and giggled.
I looked at the frozen dinner still rotating in the microwave and, deciding a delay wouldn’t make it any less tasteless, I hurried through town, down to River Street Number 80.
At least I knew one of the Vlaevs—Ivaylo. He was a senior in my school, a year ahead of me. He had once asked me out, and when I refused, he stopped speaking to me. I hoped he had forgotten about it.
When I rang the bell, it was Ivaylo who opened the door. He pretended he didn’t know who I was and said, “We do not appreciate soliciting at dinner time.”
“I haven’t come to sell you things. I need to talk to your parents.”
“What about?”
“None of your business,” I said, and rang the bell again. Finally, Ivaylo’s mother came to the door.
“Do you have a ghost missing from the household?” I inquired politely.
“What are you talking about?”
“A drowned lady, short, stocky, lots of mud. My grandmother seems to think she was your mother-in-law.”
The woman started choking, recovered quickly, and waived her arms in fake outrage. “Ha! What nonsense. Go away, girl, and don’t bother us again.”
The door closed. I stood there, my hand halfway up to knock, unsure what to do. I’ve never heard of anyone disowning a family ghost. In a town with so many of them, there were unspoken rules and regulations of conduct. No one dared to insult a ghost, no matter if in residence or a communal one. No one turned their back and slept through the visitations without at least offering an explanation. I knew some people made excuses with work the next day or tests in school, but it had to be a really good reason, or they paid the price later.
What did the Vlaevs think they were? An exception?
I knocked on the door, rang the bell a few times, and when no one answered, I shouted through the mail slot, “You better come and collect her tonight, or…or…” I didn’t know what I would do if they didn’t show up. Call the police? Expose them at the town’s meeting? Write to the editor?
I went back home, ate the adhesive blob that my dinner had turned into, and used all the plastic bags left in the box to cover the floors. I had barely finished when the ghost stepped in, dragging her feet and dragging along my plastic bags, which were too thin and too light and stuck to the mud of her soles.
“Excuse me…excuse me,” I kept repeating while trying to hold the edges of the bags down, pressing them with my big toe. I pointed to the chair covered with towels that I had prepared earlier and called the Vlaevs. I didn’t care one bit that it was after midnight.
“Who is it?” Ivaylo asked. His voice was slurred. In the background, I could hear music and chatter.
“Having a party, yeah?” I said. “A celebration, I guess?”
There was a short silence, then: “It’s Saturday, Reni. What do you expect me to do?”
“I expect you to come over and fetch your grandmother’s ghost. Haven’t you any shame?”
“Are you crazy? Or stupid? Why would I want to do such a thing?” The noise from the party died. Ivaylo was drunk, but not drunk enough to let his friends hear what he was about to tell me. “Do you know how much trouble she’s been? Because of her, we had to tile all the floors. Every night, we needed to roll up the carpets and lift them onto the tables or prop them along the walls. Do you think that was fun?”
“But she is yours. It’s not my fault that your grandfather let her drown.”
“I don’t care. Dad doesn’t care, and Mom doesn’t care the smallest bit. You are stuck, Reni.”
“What about your grandfather? Doesn’t he care?”
“The old fool has no say in the matter. By the way, he won’t be around much longer—he is going to a nursing home. No more spending his whole pension on wine to drink at night with the damned ghost.”
Ivaylo slammed the phone hard but must have missed the slot, because I could hear him swearing under his breath, then opening a door and shouting, “Is there any beer left?”
I turned around. The ghost sat at the edge of her chair, shivering, and looking more miserable if that were possible.
“Sorry,” I said. “No one is available at the moment. Please make yourself comfortable. I’ll be right back.”
I hadn’t undressed yet, so I only needed my sandals. One of them was close to the ghost’s right foot, which she moved an inch or two to allow me to take my sandal without the discomfort of reaching into her aura. “Appreciated,” I muttered and left the house, this time in no particular hurry.
In the middle of the street, Fatima, the ghost of the Turkish woman that had thrown herself into the neighborhood well, sat on the asphalt with her legs crossed under her. Since they had filled the well in 1986 when the city paved the street, Fatima had nowhere to sit but on the ground. She hadn’t been an unhappy ghost before, I was told, sitting on the ledge of the well, tinkling the bangles on her wrists, and greeting the late night passersby with a soft “Assalamu Alaikum.” These days she kept her eyes down, her hands limp in her lap, and her bangles silent. Usually she sat very still, but tonight she was rocking her upper body as if in trance, back and forth, back and forth.
“Good evening, Fatima,” I said. She didn’t answer, just kept rocking. I took a good look at her. Even taking into account the shimmer and the luminescent transparency of her body and clothes, I could see that she didn’t have a drop of water on her. She had jumped to her death into the well, probably hitting the stone walls on her way down, and definitely drowning in the water, but her clothes were dry, her face wasn’t marked with bruises, and her hairpiece neatly covered her hair.
Deep in thought, I didn’t hear the warning thunder of hooves and barely had time to flatten myself against a fence when the coachman came down the street. The coach leaped behind the galloping horses, the coachman cracking his long whip over their haunches and howling with full voice, “Giddyap! Giddyap!” as if they could possibly run any faster. The coachman’s features were distorted with rage but clear of blemishes, even though he had found his end tumbling down a 200 foot deep ravine. I tried not to look at the horses, wretched beasts, frothing and showing their teeth, the whites of their bulging, horrified eyes iridescent in the light of the half moon.
When we were in elementary school, my best friend and I collected signatures and tried to interest PETA in the inhumane treatment of the ghost horses, but no one returned our calls.
After that encounter, I proceeded more carefully, and managed to cross the town without meeting the coachman again. Just as I was about to turn into River Street, I heard him coming from the opposite end. I made a quick escape, cutting through somebody’s backyard and climbing the dike. He wouldn’t follow me here. I knew that for sure—he cruised only the streets and roads that had existed at the time of his death. The dike along the river was built in 1958, after the big flood.
As I walked along the dike, the houses down on my left, the river on my right, I thought about the flood. I remembered it with the false memory of an impressionable child, in the colors of the yellowed newspapers I’ve seen in the basement. If I closed my eyes, I could see the old tsar wading through the muddy water and the floating corpses.
I must have really closed my eyes, because when I opened them, I was standing on nothing, five feet up in the air. The dike had disappeared. The river was roaring under my feet.
Vertigo and disorientation overwhelmed me. I swayed in place, afraid that if I made just one step away from my invisible platform, I’d fall in the water. “What is going on?” I cried. “This is not supposed to be happening!”
Maybe I would have kept yapping like a lost puppy if the cool, prickly presence of a ghost hadn’t brought me back to my senses. It was the ghost of the drowned woman. She lifted her hand and pointed in the distance. A ten-foot wall of murky water was rushing down the riverbed. The ghost made sure I saw it and pointed down, at the houses. If I were not mistaken, one of her broken fingers was aligned with the Vlaevs’ house.
Eerie light replaced the illumination of the occasional streetlight. Actually, the streetlights, along with the posts they were attached to, had disappeared. Some of the houses remained the same, others were gone, and a few that I didn’t remember sprouted up in the vacated spaces. There were no street trees, no sidewalks, and even the concrete pavement was replaced with cobbles. At last, I understood. The ghost wanted me to see what had happened to her back in 1957.
The wall of water hit the first houses, parted around them and flew into the streets and the yards, uprooting small trees, hauling up cars, household items, a horse cart along with the struggling horse, people—men, women, small children. Birds abandoned their nests, filling the sky with black wings. Cats climbed on the roofs. The dogs in the dog runs didn’t stand a chance.
“I can’t… I can’t watch anymore…I can’t stand it.” I turned my head, preferring to look the ghost in the face but not the horror unfolding around me, but the ghost’s hand kept pointing with its broken fingers, and I had no power to refuse.
The water was no deeper than four or five feet now, but it seemed to flow even faster. A man’s voice hollering, “Paraskeva! Paraskeva!” drew my attention to the Vlaevs’ yard. First, I saw the man only. He was up a pear tree, leaning at a dangerous angle over the water. He straightened for a moment, only to take off his belt and wrap it around a branch, then he took the other end and leaned even farther. Now he was two feet closer to the water but still not close enough to reach the young woman holding to the trunk of the tree. Waves rolled over her head one after another. Every time her head bobbed up, she gasped desperately for breath, water streaming from her nostrils and mouth, waiting for the next wave to come and hit her. Still, it seemed she was going to make it. She hugged the tree with the fervor of a lover, and a branch the man had bent down was within her reach.
She waited for the right moment, concentrating on the task, not noticing the two barrels that just popped out of the basement. The water carried them across the yard so swiftly that when she saw them it was too late. One of them hit the tree trunk, smashing her hands into a bloody mass. The other one caught her on the side of the head.
“Paraskeva…”
It all became still. The dike rose from under my feet, the streetlights flickered as if just lit, the houses slept, and the river was only a silvery ribbon winding through the purple shadows of the jacaranda trees.
I sighed. So that was that. But what was it? What did it mean? I turned to look at Paraskeva’s ghost, but her expression was unreadable. She had shown me what she wanted me to see, and now it was up to me to draw the conclusions. Sorry as I felt for her, it had been Ivaylo’s grandfather who didn’t manage to save his wife. I wasn’t going to get stranded with her ghost.
Making sure the coachman was not in sight, I climbed down the dike, crossed the back alley, and jumped the low fence around the Vlaevs’ backyard. It was darker here than up on the dike. I stumbled through a vegetable garden, my feet stirring the fragrance of mint and crushed tomato leaves. The two-story house loomed above me with its black windows. Somebody coughed, a dry hacking cough that came from a smaller building to the left, a detached garage. Dim light squeezed out from under the door. I turned the knob, expecting to find Ivaylo’s father polishing his golf clubs or whatever the guy did after midnight in his garage. Instead, I found a very old man lying on a narrow bed, covered to the chin with a dirty comforter. A table and a single chair completed the furnishings. The bastards! They had put the old man to live in the garage!
“Paraskeva,” the old man spoke. He wasn’t looking at me, but to the side. I turned and saw Paraskeva’s ghost sitting on a big, old fashioned suitcase next to the door. “Sorry, sweetheart, they won’t let you visit me in the nursing home. It’s against their policy—I asked the nurse that came to fill out the papers. No spirits of any kind, she said. Ah, what are we going to do?”
Paraskeva’s ghost pointed at me. The old man saw me for the first time and slow understanding started to creep up his face. Not allowing him even a moment of hope, I cried, “No! I am sorry. We don’t have the accommodations.”
The old man started sobbing quietly, tears running down his hollow cheeks, disappearing into the white bristles of his week-old beard.
Unable to take my eyes away from him, I stepped back, tripping on a loose piece of concrete and almost losing my balance. The concrete chip fit nicely in the palm of my hand. I swung it with all my strength and sent it flying at one of the second-story windows. The crash splintered the quiet, and the Vlaevs’ shouts and cusses came through shredded and unrecognizable.
I ran the whole way home. Last I saw Paraskeva’s ghost, she was sitting on her husband’s suitcase, but fast as I ran, she still beat me to my room. I dropped another towel around her feet, and barely having the strength to remove my sandals, I fell into my bed.
The next three days I lived my life in very small increments. I took small steps everywhere I went, sipped small sips of water when thirsty, cut my bread into miniature bites, and answered questions with yes or no.
At last, Wednesday came and at six-twenty-five, a very ancient taxicab delivered my grandmother and her numerous bags in front of our house. I had been waiting there for the bigger part of the afternoon. Grandma patted me on the cheek and said, “There, there, it couldn’t be all that bad,” but when we got inside, she seemed to think otherwise. “Oh my,” she said, and after a short moment of indecisiveness, she rolled her sleeves up, noting, “Good thinking about the plastic bags.”
It took Grandma two hours to clean the house, air the rooms, and start dinner. Around nine-thirty, she fed me my first home-cooked meal in the past eighteen days, and told me to get lost. Not in these words, but the meaning was clear. She needed to be alone with the ghost, and I had to go and entertain myself elsewhere.
I went to the rock club and drank diet sodas until closing time. The tower clock rang two times when I finally headed home. The closer I got, the faster my heart beat, about to explode when I took the last turn. Fatima was already there, seated in the middle of the street. “Assalamu Alaikum,” she said, and when I answered, she gave me a little wave. The bangles on her wrist jingled. It seemed like a good sign. I felt a little better.
Grandma had left the porch light on. Otherwise, the house was dark. I opened the front door, starting to hope for the best. Releasing a long breath, I reached for the light switch. “He, he, he,” I heard my grandmother’s laughter from the direction of the kitchen. My hand froze in the air. Holding my breath again, I tiptoed through the living room and looked into the kitchen.
At the table, Grandma and Paraskeva’s ghost chatted amiably. More precisely, Grandma chatted and the ghost nodded, her crooked fingers wrapped around the stem of one of my grandmother’s second-best sherry glasses. Grandma had a glass, too. Between the two of them, the liquid in the decanter shone like a lava lamp.
My grandma must have sensed my presence, because she said over her shoulder, “Don’t worry, dear. We have an arrangement with Paraskeva—she will be entering through the kitchen door and will try to keep to the lawn chair.”
Paraskeva’s ghost was, indeed, seated in one of our plastic lawn chairs.
“But, Grandma,” I whined. “She looks so…er…untidy. And she drips water.”
“Her appearance will improve as soon as her husband passes away—doesn’t it happen to all of us?” Grandma said. “And a little water won’t hurt the linoleum. Besides, after twenty years of insomnia, there are not many books left that I care to read. Go to bed, dear, and don’t give it a second thought.”
Grandma turned to Paraskeva’s ghost and continued the conversation, I mean, the monologue I had interrupted. “And then I told him: You are such a flatterer! I haven’t danced for years. And guess what he said…”

1.8 Heaton Triptych I

river
copyright 2015

Heaton Triptych I

 3 stories by

Kevin Heaton

 
Delilah
          woman in the valley of Sorek
I found myself blind, behind a bamboo curtain, clapped in sensory deceptions and stacked pheromones, my aloe illusions indentured to what seemed. The leggy web-lass splayed her motif in pleasure quarters; veiled beneath a soupçon of pollen. A mime: a chatelaine, a single dancer. Her whims, lithe enough to assuage the trepidations of my impetuous inquisition. I purled, pulsating, nonplussed; my eyes crossed in her anther. Gold-plate heightened the way light played on them; silken, tailoring me to my denouement without an antidote: a spun chrysalis hemmed by his lotus thorn—still courting hopes of dying softly.
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Alexander’s Well
Somewhere along the River Euphrates, in the garden of good and evil, the ghost of Juan Ponce de Leon possessed the serpentine tongue of an emerald python who told the Moorish tale of an everafter fountain formed by strange tides and diver’s tidings, where red flamingos panned for watercress, scarlet parrots preened their plumes in the refilled cup of Christ, forbidden fruits dined on flesh without conviction, and fabled springs foretold the lies of each inquisitor.
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Gullah
An Israelite prophet sojourning in Sierra Leone, happened on a Gullah priest canting Igbo slave tunes at a ‘ring shout.’ From this priest, the prophet begged a bundle of twigs with which to weave a weeping willow basket. He lined it with lion tuft, and blood-stained Kinte cloth—filled it with goobers, Jollof rice, grandmama scriptures, & living sculptures cast in the doctrines of Father Divine. He strapped this burden to his back with overseer lashings, walked on water through a chain of Lowcountry islands, & laid it all on the altar of magnolia anthers.

1.7 When I Awoke

patek pjillipe

copyright 2015

When I Awoke

a story by

Nina Ficenec

 
It was the first day of Autumn when I awoke to find that my wife of three years had been replaced by a Patek Philippe 5104P Grand Complications timepiece. The wristwatch rested on her pillow, the minute repeater softly chiming after I turned off the morning alarm. I searched around the house for some cause but found nothing. All the doors were locked, chains set, windows clamped shut.
I stood in the kitchen over my coffee scratching my head for probably fifteen minutes until our three month old daughter Delphine awoke. I placed the watch on the dining table and set to getting on with the day. Delphine had this marvelous expression of surprise at the speed to which I changed her, clothed her, fed her. I gave her the watch to play with and carried her upstairs where she lay on the bed while I dressed in the bathroom. When I came out she had the navy crocodile leather strap in her mouth. I quickly took her mother away and said “No, no, no, darling, we don’t treat Mommy that way.”
I dropped Delphine off at daycare and went to work. On my lunch break I called the house to see if my wife would pick up, if she’d changed back. I left a voicemail: “Jeanne. Jeanne, are you there? Jeanne? I’m leaving work early and will be there soon. Are you there, Jeanne?”
I told my boss I had a small emergency. He wished the family well.
I went home to find Jeanne in the same spot I had put her, on the nightstand. I placed her in the passenger seat of the car and we went to her parents to see what their thoughts were on this new situation. We sat in their baroque parlor for tea, I in my usual armchair, Jeanne on the matching ottoman. “No, no, Jeanne, that’s not for sitting, now. Take the chair next to Louis.” Her mother smiled at the Patek Philippe, awaiting obedience. I gently picked Jeanne up and placed her in the matching armchair next to me. We stayed for an hour, her parents commenting on how well she looked, that we both seemed so happy, that the coming weekend we should bring little Delphine and have dinner. “She has your eyes, Jeanne.”
I said goodbye and drove to the ice cream shop we’d frequented since our dating days. I ordered two cups of coffee and a scoop of vanilla. She rested across from me on the table. I said enough was enough. I asked her why she was doing this. Was it something I did? Was she unhappy? I tried to think of the days prior, weeks, months, had anything gone awry that I may have missed. She seemed tired, but so was I. A new baby does that to anyone. Was she thinking about Delphine? How this passive aggressiveness will affect her?
I became so frustrated at her lack of response that I slammed my fists down, the reverb knocking her from the tabletop and onto the tile floor. I whisked her up and held her cupped in my hands, checking to see that she wasn’t scratched or cracked. I brought her to my face and whispered, “I’m so sorry, baby. I didn’t mean it. Please, forgive me.” When she didn’t say anything I held her closer, dropping some money on the table before leaving to pick up Delphine from daycare.
Back home, with our baby napping in her room, I sat with Jeanne on the sofa. I took her between my fingertips, inspecting every facet of her design. I could see why she chose this form. She was platinum with a rose gold slide for the repeater. The dial was skeletonized. I could see every one of her five hundred fifteen components, each cog and wheel, the small hammers that made her sing. She was perpetual. Even her hand movements were unique, traveling along an arc and jumping back at each new hour instead of going round and round in circles. I pushed on the rose gold slide to activate the repeater, and before I fell asleep to the rhythmic chimes I told her to take as much time as she needed, that I could wait it out.
Eight years later and she’s still in Patek Philippe form. She’s with Delphine most evenings and I watch the baby in the morning. Some days I can’t stomach the sight of Jeanne, so I lock her in the safe at the back of the closet.
When the recession hit, I was laid off and almost pawned her on twelve different occasions. She could have brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars instead of just sitting there not even moping around. Delphine and I almost lost the house. I barely survived on two jobs until the economy picked up and I found better work. I don’t know what stopped me from giving Jeanne up. Maybe love, or hope, or out of respect to the life we’d built. Maybe because I wanted to prove her wrong, prove that she was silly to do this, silly to doubt.
But sometimes I wonder if fear held me back. I know I shouldn’t be so paranoid, but every night after Delphine dozes off I wake up every hour and check on her. I inspect her long and reaching fingers, her twitching ears, her once delicate yet dull face that has since grown more and more in resemblance to Jeanne’s. I look for any sign of metal, of gems, knelling, ticking or tocking, just to make sure I don’t lose her too. When she draws a long breath, I think back to the last night I saw Jeanne, how she carefully arranged her hair along the pillow after getting into bed, how that hair fell against her shoulders and down her back as she leaned to me right after I’d turned off the light because she’d forgotten to say, “Goodnight.”

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editor’s note: the Patek Philippe 5104P Grand Complications presently retails for 675k to 900k USD

1.6 The Ink Android

mouse in box copyright 2015

The Ink Android

a story by

Jen Finelli

 
Manna—born of dew and chocolate overdose like most of us, only more so—opened her eyes for the first time on a dusty bookshelf. Church mice snuffled around her, curiously; she wasn’t more than a flesh-wrapped spark in electrical wire.
“She can’t live like that!”
So they found her limbs in the glossy pages of a science textbook; a voice in a hymnal; one clear blue eye in a newspaper and another, purple, in a poet’s sketchpad. They papier-mâché’d cookbooks, a magazine, and romance novels into digestive tracts, gustatory mores, and intimate parts. Letters between friends became her ears, and a picture book settled into her lungs.
For her heart, they called their cousins and heaved a big black leather book from the pastor’s knapsack. Unfortunately, even if a heart’s good, it won’t match the body without breath and blood, and try as they might, the little mice couldn’t make Manna really live. No smiles or footsteps from her—only shuffling, longing sniffles. Her skin froze, and one by one the mice left so she wouldn’t singe off their fur in her embrace.
She didn’t call after them.
She didn’t care, really, she told herself.
Her fingers tingled for a moment—ached like holding your breath too long—then stiffened and felt nothing. Her eyes crinkled; she couldn’t cry as they dried. The spark was receding into her core.
But as Manna sat frigid, shutting down, her heart drew back towards the pages that comprised it, and just before her other body parts flexed back into paper, she read.
She—she had letters etched on her heart! Figures scrawled across her arms—lyrics dripping from her voice box into her lungs—!
And each one told a story.
She choked—her head pounded for the first time as blood, breath welled within her, searing her chest. She croaked. “More! More!” She clawed across the shelf to her heart’s tome, clouds of dust exploding around her. Her limbs dragged—still the spark receded—ice crackled on her temples—
“No, no!” she cried, throwing her weight against the book.
It thudded open besides her.
She tore into it, sucking the words in, rolling in them, filtering them through her bare skin. The stories burst inside her, climaxing into one Word, and when she reached the end, she lay panting, staring at the shelf above her, and whispered it.
Lightning and laughter glittered around her ankles.
“More one-words!” Dust trailed Manna like airplane exhaust as she pounced across other pages, building her blood with one-words. A Tale of Two Cities gave her “sacrifice”; Mara, Daughter of the Nile, “courage”; a Batman comic, “persistence”; Peter Pan, “playfulness”! As she ran, she caught her reflection in the back face of a discarded pocket-watch, and with a gasp she found more letters she couldn’t quite see, on her back, under her arms, shining stories back at her. She stared at herself, head tilted, spinning and peering and sniffing as her reflection brought her new one-words, one-words that colored her skin with brilliant, shifting iridescence.
A rainbow of light pierced the hole where the church mice lived. Some withdrew into the furthest corners of the cathedral, shrieking; a few crept to the door, black nub-noses twitching. “Manna, is that you?”
Manna raised her hands and shouted her first one-word. Fragrance like fresh jasmine burst from her mouth to encourage the brave mice, and they cheered. From then on, through every Winter she kept them warm; from every cat she rescued them; and her dances calmed their babies during thunderstorms.
The mice in the dark corners never trusted her and never came out again, and sometimes, Manna even felt strange with the friendly ones, knowing they hadn’t stayed by her side at her worst. But she was never lonely. The stories inside found her companions in the stars, and on clear Summer nights the mice would gather on the tallest spire to watch her fly.
It’s one of those nights tonight. A little piebald sits on his hind legs and wonders as Manna takes off. “Why didn’t it work when we built her of words?”
“I suppose the most important words don’t make any senses without stories,” says an old rouge rat. “Especially if no one lives them out for you–
–you can’t just say Love, you know. Love has to say you.”

1.5 The Revelation

Bigger GIF

copyright 2015

The Revelation

a story by

Merran Jones

+
Wickerton Hall burrowed into the landscape like a resilient tick. Long derelict, its integrity sagged. Gap-toothed slate littered the roof. The Cotswold stonework was encrusted with lichen and creeping vines. In the thin, winter light, a garment of mist wreathed its edges.
Two people walked up the drive. They stood small as figurines on the gravel and studied the glaring facade with wide eyes and craned necks. Wind whipped the hair from Tess’s collar. “This is it?”
“Yeah, must be,” her brother Michael replied. ”Buckinghamshire, after the Aylesbury turnoff. Left up the lane with the stone pillars and the little gate house, Danny said. There’s no other place around that fits the description.”
“It’s so big.”
Michael grinned. “I know.”
“It’s falling down!”
“So? Makes it more exciting.” He tilted his head at his sister. “Shall we?”
Tess swallowed and nodded. Her shoulders narrowed. Skeletal roses strangled the path. They stretched their arthritic limbs toward the sky. One snagged her leg. She tussled free but not before the bush pricked her thumb, leaving a signature of blood.
Michael juggled the key into the lock. Tess stood closer, sucking pain from her hand. The door relented with a groan of inconvenience, and together, they stepped inside. An unmistakable ‘hiss’ fell over the silence. Like a cut in the surface of one’s skin, the house knew it had been breached. The siblings listened, but no other sound followed; nothing but the tension drumming in their ears. Tess turned to Michael. Her face curled into a question. He shrugged. They walked into the entrance hall and scanned the shadows. To their left was a broken staircase; to their right, two doors that led to the west wing; and straight ahead, an archway through to a much larger space.
“Wow…” Michael’s breath pierced the silence. He walked forward, unable to resist the opening. Tess skittered behind. The room beyond was vast. Water damage had stripped the paneled walls and cracked the cornices. A chandelier hung from a bowed ceiling. Broken, one-eyed windows overlooked a terrace snarled with vegetation. The stench of rot insulted them. Dust climbed over their feet, molding them to the house. Higher up, the flecks drifted through splinters of dirty light. A thrill rolled down Michael’s spine.
“This is so cool…”
Tess clasped her elbows against the cold. “We shouldn’t be here.”
“Why not?”
She had no answer. Michael walked into the hall and spread his arms. He kicked the remains of a chair, then propped his hands on his hips. “So, this was the ballroom.” His words were inflated with authority.
Tess didn’t reply. Her eyes traced over the shapes. The room where guests once danced in gilded wilderness now lay silent. A rug covered the floor, its flowers long decomposed. Sadness filled the empty chairs; the spaces in which years of love and laughter no longer lived, stories halted in time. She touched a lounge chair. Distantly, in another age, refined chat and tinging glasses floated on the air. A Strauss waltz weaved among the crowd.
“Hey, this way!”
Tess glanced up. Michael was across the hall, heading into the east wing. She ran after him, aware of her isolation and remembering her anxiety. They explored room after room, Michael declaring ‘Drawing room. Dining room. Billiard room,’ as they went. The decrepit spaces had little furniture, making it impossible to have this knowledge unless one had studied the house plans or was an educated historian. Tess listened to the dip and rise of Michael’s adolescent voice. He gestured wildly, his thin hands shaping too-big words. She often wearied of his posturing. They did not have the house plans, and her brother was no historian.
Deep within the east wing, the siblings found a door they couldn’t open.
“Huh, that’s weird. Wonder why it’s locked,” Michael said.
“To stop delinquents roaming the halls?”
Tess was shot a glare of irritation.
“Sorry,” she said with a sigh, not sorry at all. “Do you have the key?”
“Maybe.” He pulled out a ring of keys.
“There’s so many.”
“They open a lot of doors. Remember, there’s still upstairs and outside.” Michael’s eyes flickered. “This one’s a bit smaller.” The key found its home. The door argued, grinding on calcified hinges, then opened into a small passageway, which led down a flight of stairs. “Oh, cool.” He moved forward, then faltered. The yawning void swallowed some of his bravado. “I need a light.”
Tess disappeared, and then returned with a squat candle.
“Where’d you get that?”
“The dining room. There was one on the mantelpiece.”
“That’s fortunate.”
“Yeah I know. But how are you going to light it?”
“My lighter, of course.”
The expectant air begged the words to be asked. “So . . . why don’t you just use that?”
He stared dumbly at the two objects. “This’ll be better.”
“Hmm.”
The siblings tossed comments back and forth, trying to mask their tension. Michael lit the candle. His fingers betrayed a slight tremor. The flame perched on the wick, shimmying a timid salsa. They descended the stairs. Michael held the candle in front, its light engulfed by the gloom. Tess followed, clinging to him like a shadow. As they reached the ground, the smell of decay overwhelmed them. Both clapped their sleeves to their faces.
Michael gagged. “Gross!”
“You think something died down here?”
Their muffled whispers stayed close to their lips. Michael swallowed. He sincerely hoped not. In the darkness, their four other senses stepped into the light. A sour mould mixed with the decay. Their shuffles echoed, bouncing off tile. The air was expectant. Tess could taste it. Her hand brushed against an object; square and wooden. She swallowed a scream, realizing it was only a table. As their eyes adjusted to the surroundings, they discovered they were in a kitchen. Cobwebs laced the ceiling, casting threaded shadows. A coke-fired cooker hunched against the wall. Above a copper-bar sink pewter dishes hung, scarred with patina. Michael fiddled with the cooker. He tried the taps. “No water.”
He scratched at the few eager hairs sprouting forth on his chin; an improbable beard. Listing sideways, as only an ungainly teenager could, he looked at his sister.
“Can we go back upstairs now?” Tess glanced furtively at the shadows.
“Aww c’mon, it’s fine.” Her brother pitched his voice a shade too bright.
A long corridor led off one corner of the kitchen. Doors lined either side, all closed, tunneling the dark. Michael peaked his eyebrows at his sister. “We’ve come this far,” he said, as though duty-bound.
Tess shook her head but he walked off, taking the precious candle. “Wait!” She dashed after him. They crept down the hall. Their shadows crouched beside them as the light licked the walls.
“Must be the service wing.” Michael’s confidence had a puncture. His words dropped to the ground like deflated balloons. They stepped past the mechanical bell panel: spring bells upon a long strip of wood, each with a label, marking the location of its caller. The deep arteries of the house were less exposed to the elements, but the signs had still aged. Tess just deciphered the words. ‘Library,’ ‘Guest Suite,’ and ‘Tea Room.’ They had not gone far when they heard a noise; a steady, paced dripping.
“Can you hear that?”
“Yeah.”
“Is there a leak somewhere?”
“It’s coming from behind us.” Michael went back into the kitchen. He swung the stuttering candle around.
“It’s stopped,” Tess said.
They listened, poised. Michael marched over to the sink, but the taps and basin remained dry, perished and cracked beneath his fingers. “Hmm. Definitely not from here. Never mind. Probably nothing. This place is full of holes. Could be a leak anywhere.” Back in the corridor, Michael reached for the door on the left. The dripping began again. Heavier, louder. He swept back into the kitchen. It stopped. His palms began to itch. “It’s nothing,” he repeated, his voice chalky, unconvincing. He turned to leave a third time, when a gush of water ripped through the air. He spun around. The sound ceased as abruptly as it had begun. “Oh, come on!” His voice rose into a shriek.
Silence followed.
Tess, shrunken in the corner, studied her brother. All the color had drained from his face, as though a plug had been pulled. “Please let’s just leave it.”
Michael glanced back down the hall. Part of him was fearful, part longed to explore the basement, and part was righteously annoyed. The sum of his desires wrestled over what to do. He stood still, apart from the hand that held the candle. The flame trembled slightly, shaking out his nerves. “Fine. Let’s go.” Back on the ground floor, Michael headed to the staircase, new conviction in his stride. He hated being scared.
Tess scuttled behind. “Aren’t we leaving?”
“You can. I still want to check out the first floor.”
A skating wind slammed into the house. Wickerton Hall rumbled, already irked by its intruders. “See? This place isn’t happy. It wants us out,” said Tess imploringly.
“Don’t be ridiculous. It’s just a building.”
“Then how do you explain the water?”
Michael glared. Even more than getting a fright, he couldn’t stand not having an answer. “I’m going upstairs.”
As much as Tess wanted to leave, she wasn’t about to wait outside alone. “Fine.”
The first floor opened onto a long gallery hall with rooms left and right, and a wing at either end.
“I reckon one side would’ve been ol’ man Howlett and his wife’s rooms. Then, the kids’ rooms, and the nursery, and the nanny’s room would’ve been up the other end.”
“And these rooms in the middle?”
Michael shrugged. “Guest rooms I suppose. And probably things like, breakfast room, and trophy room, and stuff.”
“How do you know?”
Michael tried a worldly air on for size. “When you get to my age, you just know these things.”
Tess scoffed.
“Also, Danny told me,” he added quietly.
They began to explore. Traces of Early Georgian and Queen Anne lingered, but the oak paneling and ceiling emblems were harshly weathered. Tess peeked into one room. It had a musk of old velvet. The windows overlooked the stepped grounds; an overgrown rank of wet abandonment, spread out like a sheet. Weeds covered the remains of a fountain. A dovecot hunched beneath the trees.
“So this would’ve been the trophy room,” said Michael from the darkness ahead of his sister.
Tess followed his voice. He stood in a small space in the east wing, hands on hips once more; a proprietary stance. A stag hung lopsidedly over the fireplace, one antler broken. Tess stared at the beast, immensely sad. Man’s selfish pride amounted to naught. A few books lay open and back-broken in the dust. She loved books; beauteous and noble, they deserved respect. But their worlds only lived through the eyes of readers. Spayed and forgotten, they were merely debris. She bent to touch one and stopped. Graffiti had been scratched into the wall behind. She peered closer. It read ‘YOU WROTE THIS.’
“Hey!”
“What?”
“There’s writing here.”
“Huh. Just some kid trying to be clever.”
“It looks old.”
“This place has been abandoned for years.”
“Yeah but—” A bell pinged in the distance.
Shh, what’s that?”
They listened, ears cocked.
“Doorbell?”
“No. No, I think it’s the bell panel.”
“But surely we couldn’t hear it up here.”
Michael’s eyebrows puckered. “There’s likely more than one in a place this size. Probably one in the servants’ corridor we missed. Then there’s also the attic. It would’ve been a pretty complicated system. See?” He pointed to a lever beside the fireplace. The mechanical wiring ran up the wall into a crank in the cornice. The ringing continued. Paced. Methodical. Determined.
A swirl of fear rose in Tess’s throat. She whimpered. “What do we do?”
Michael clenched his fists, thinking. “We need to go check.”
Downstairs, they traced the noise back to the basement steps. Both knew the sound couldn’t have reached the trophy room. But it had. “I’m not going down there again.” Tess peered into the dark, her heart thrumming.
Michael re-lit the candle. It’d almost guttered into the holder. It wouldn’t last much longer. “Fine.”
He began to step down in a body larger than he felt. Tess watched his coat disappear into the dark. The bell went quiet. Minutes later, he emerged, his face as white as his eyes. His jaw opened and shut like shears. “It just stopped.” His staccato voice was colorless.
“Please let’s go. This place really wants us out.”
“No.” Michael shook the shock from his mind. His obstinate tone had returned. “There’s no reason why we can’t be here.” A child wanting his own way, he may as well have stamped his foot for good measure. “I’m going back to check out the west wing.”
“Are you kidding?”
Michael bordered on obsession. He threw down the expired candle and stomped upstairs. Tess ran behind. Now, not only scared of being alone, but worried for her brother.
They reached the west end of the gallery and entered a room with an ancient four-poster bed. The drawn curtains muted the light. Tess approached a mirror. Browned and spotted, it stood in one corner and eyed a gritty world. It emphasized her porcelain frame. She’d always been the hint of a person, a faded photocopy, having owned ‘a nervous disposition’ for longer than she could remember.
Michael banged a chest open, briefly distracting her. Turning back to the mirror, Tess jumped. Her reflection wore a soft, high-waisted dress. Tight ringlets corkscrewed over its ears. A shawl draped across its shoulders. Tess blinked. As quickly as it’d come, the image vanished. The figure staring back was dressed in her lilac raincoat and jeans.
Don’t be stupid, her conscience chided. She peered closer, the architecture of her face blunted by the dun. Her reflection blinked. She gasped and shrank away.
“What?”
“I . . . I . . . this sounds crazy, but I think my reflection just blinked.”
Michael scoffed. “Yeah right.”
“No, really. It . . . first I was wearing old clothes. Like Jane Austen-style. And then, I’m sure my reflection blinked at me. I was looking right at it.” Tess’s voice tripped over the words. They tumbled from her mouth and collapsed at her feet.
“Oooh, spooky. The mirror’s watching me,” Michael said with a jeer. “Next it’ll be talking. Telling you where the treasure is hidden.” He wiggled his fingers and danced with a mockery all big brothers come to perfect. Moreover, covering his own nerves with ridicule.
“Stop! I’m serious.”
Michael glanced at the mirror, then his sister with speculation. She stayed folded by the door. He sighed as if greatly burdened. “Fine. Just so’s you’re happy,” and turned the mirror around. “There. Your reflection’s not gonna get you now.” He wiped his hands like quite the hero and chucked her a grand smile, his condescension patting her on the head. Tess glared at the space between her feet, unsure which emotion took precedence—fear or annoyance. As she shuffled through her thoughts, Michael continued to explore. When he opened the curtains a crack, something in the room shifted, offended by the light. The door swung shut with a click. A fatal silence followed. Michael stared at his sister. “Did you do that?”
“No, I swear, I didn’t touch it!”
He inhaled, the quiver audible in his throat. He crept toward the door and turned the handle. The corridor was empty. They looked at each other. “Must’ve been the wind.” A textbook retreat to reason. But Michael’s voice had a wavering timbre. Straining to reach a note of sincerity, his words fell flat on unconvinced ears. “The wind,” he said again. Firmly. Decisively.
Tess stared at him, maddened by his denial. “I want to go!”
“Calm down. We’re almost done. We can’t come this far and leave the last few rooms.”
“But—”
“Just stick close. Or wait outside if you really can’t stand it anymore.” He knew she’d never leave by herself. They stared at each other. He won. He always did.
“Fine. But quickly.”
Michael began to walk down the corridor. Tess followed with a whispered, apologetic tread, shrunken within her skin.
“Hey!” He stopped after a few steps. A picture had snagged his gaze.
“What?”
“This lady kinda looks like you.”
Tess squinted in the half-light. A young couple posed on the front steps; hands folded, shoulders stiff, spaniels at their feet. The fragile woman had watery hair and hollow eyes; her pallor further dilated by age. Tess froze. “That’s the dress.”
“What?”
“The dress in my reflection.”
“Come on. How can you tell? The picture’s all faded and damaged.”
“I’m telling you, it’s the same cut. The hair is exactly the same. It’s the woman I saw in the mirror.”
“No. You saw yourself in the mirror. Your eyes were playing tricks. This lady just happens to look a bit like you. That’s all.”
Silence. Tess knew she was right. “She seems sad,” she finally said. “And scared.”
“Meh. Maybe.”
“Do you think they were the first owners?”
“Nah, I reckon that’s 1800s. This place would be older than that.”
“How old?”
“Well, Danny said early 1700s, but I’m sure some of it was remodeled afterward.”
“How do you know?”
“You can just tell.”
“No you can’t.” She squinted closer. “Something happened to them.”
“What makes you say that?”
Tess didn’t reply. The question hung in the air, reopening the silence. They continued to study the painting.
Eventually, Michael moved away.
“Wait. Do you hear that?” Tess asked.
Her brother halted. From the room with the mirror, there came a faint knock.
“Sounds like something’s tapping on a window.”
“Could be a bird.”
Tess cocked an eyebrow. By now, she knew it wouldn’t be something as reasonable as a bird. They crept back down the hall. She fisted her hands, her body rigid.
“Didn’t you shut that door?”
“I thought I did.”
They entered the room and looked around. Nothing had changed. They glanced at the curtain, hesitant to touch it again, given what’d happened last time. But the noise didn’t come from the window. It came from the corner. From the mirror. Michael moved closer, each step an eternity. Mortal fear coiled around Tess. Between each tap, her heart banged in her head. “Don’t . . . ” she pleaded. But Michael was transfixed. Hypnotized. His arm stretched forward; thin and bloodless. He touched the mirror. The tapping stopped. Tess’s heart arrested. Her breath trapped a scream trapped in her mouth. Her brother grasped the frame and heaved it around.
Tess screamed.
The mirror reflected her image, dressed as the woman in the picture, hanging above the staircase, limp and white and twisted at the neck. Memory floated behind her vision, releasing the scent of history. Panic roared between her ears. She couldn’t breathe.
At the same time, a black voice howled, “Get out! Get out! GET OUT!”
The thread of their nerves snapped. They both threw themselves at the door and tumbled down the stairs. Their limbs tangled as they hit the ground outside, knocking the air from their lungs. They lay in pieces on the path. Distress ratcheted through Tess’s frame. Her breath came in serrated coughs.
Tess sobbed. “It was me! It was me! I lived and died here!”
Shh. Shh. Shh.” Michael hugged her, staring vacantly, his comfort expelled in metronomic breaths. Slowly, they gathered themselves together and stood on shaking legs. “You okay?”
“No.”
They looked up at the house. The atmosphere was as it’d been when they arrived: still. Too still. Across the sea of field beyond, a murder of crows squawked a sorrowful flight. The bleak-scape was rinsed of color. A brunt wind tousled the clouds. It hooked under Tess’s collar and made her eyes wince. She closed them over her tears. “Please let’s go home. I don’t want to come here again.”
Michael nodded. “Danny needs the keys back at the estate agents by five…. We had to see for ourselves.”
The house settled on its foundation with a satisfied creak.
“What do we do about it now?” Tess asked.
Michael, for once, had no answer.
The two orphans stared at their inheritance.

+

Merran is an Australian physiotherapist and mother-to-be who has been writing since 2013. Her work has appeared in: The Legendary; Alfie Dog Fiction; Writer’s Forum; Seizure Online; Tincture Literary Journal; Darker Times Collection Volume Two; One Page Literary Magazine; was commended for the KSP Speculative Fiction Award 2014; and has been nominated for the Write Well Award 2014.

1.4 Moonburnt

copyright 2015

daisies GIF

Moonburnt

 

a story by

Lucas Olson

 
The only thing the boy knew about the parade was that it didn’t come very often. The last time it came through, the last time the moon was as low and heavy as it was tonight, his parents had forbade him from leaving the house and he had been too small to do anything but obey. That night he heard the sound of the parade marching down the road. It was loud and lovely, filled with competing noises. Too much noise to be able to say what any of it was except beautiful.
Not this time, not these short years later. This year, he’d stowed a lawn chair under a bush and waited for his parents to go to bed. By the time he got outside, the heat of the late Summer had passed and even the mosquitoes had gone to sleep. He sat there on his lawn for a while, slowly draining a water bottle full of lemonade and ice cubes and staring into the empty road in front of his house, waiting for the yellow lines to come to life. As the while grew longer he tried to listen for things, for marching feet in lock-step with drums, for laughter, for blowing horns and yelling people. None of it came. All he heard were the Summer sounds of crickets on his quiet street and the foghorn blaring far out in the harbor. So he sat there in the near-silence, contemplating the huge swollen moon hanging above him like pale fruit. It seemed to follow his eyes hypnotically, swinging back and forth wherever he looked.
The boy woke jumpily, nearly spilling the lemonade into his lap. The drink was still cold and the ice was still clinking around within it. He couldn’t have been asleep for long. But now the parade was here marching past him, though more somberly than he expected.
Some of the people had already passed the bend in his road. In front of him were marchers, not moving in matching steps but all in strong, brisk strides. The faces felt like people he should recognize, like things he ought to have seen, but the moonlight cast such white shadows on them it was as if they were all wearing masks. They weren’t silent, but they were hushed. The noise felt like it was miles off, like it was coming to him from somewhere far out to sea. Behind those marchers came drummers dressed in black and white uniforms, beating huge white bass drums with huge white mallets. He could feel their vibration through the ground, and through the bottle in his hand, but that sound was distant too. He let the water bottle roll from his fingers and he got up to get closer.
After the drummers came a float, a giant wooden whale he’d seen trotted out in the daytime for the Fourth of the July parade. Now, in the moonlight, it seemed to writhe and splash against the wooden waves and frothy-looking trim. He felt the quiet rumble of the float moving past him, still sounding too far to hear, and he drew closer.
More people passed him, more instruments, more miming of laughter. He could see it all dance before him in blue moonlight: a sea of strangers he thought he should know that felt far off and muted to him. More floats passed him: wolves that seemed to be howling, ships who sails seemed to be billowing, smiling mouths that in the day time advertised the dentists but tonight seemed like slivers cut out of some white sun. Each time he felt it rumble he drew closer, until he stood with his toes at the edge of the sidewalk and his nose sticking into the road. He was so close he was at risk of falling in like one can fall into a river, but even this close it felt so far away.
Then the moon float came and the parade rolled to a stop in front of him. The model moon was huge, twice the size of the wooden platform beneath it. It’s size almost matched the real moon still hovering above it all, like they were twins, and it throbbed with a matching whiteness that hurt his eyes. The boy found himself staring at it, and so did all of those in the parade. They all looked at it expectantly, like they were waiting for something spectacular that was not arriving quite yet. The boy was so caught up in the display he didn’t notice the girl in front of him until she was waving for his attention.
Hers was a face he hadn’t seen before but couldn’t help but want to know. She looked brightly colorless, as everything else did that night and he found himself staring at her like he had been staring at the model moon.
“Allons-y,” she said, with an outstretched hand. He kept staring at her, bewildered. “Allons, Allons…” she said with increased annoyance. He reached out his hand—in confusion, more than anything—and she grabbed it and pulled him into the march he did not understand.
The noise came all at once when he stepped off the sidewalk and onto the road. Laughter and clapping and the sound of moving feet and bodies bumping together. Then it was more than the noise: it was the smell of home cooking and beaches and the kind of sweat one earns by being alive and a little embarrassed. The girl’s hair was either red or brown or blonde or a hundred different colors all at once that didn’t matter. She led him towards the moon as the crowd started marching again. The boy was lead down the road, away from his house, as the faces around him grew brighter and more familiar. As the woods gave way to the harborfront, the nameless strangers surrendered themselves to something close and unnameable. The girl stayed beside him, moving just fast enough that he had to catch up, though he never quite matched her step.
She lead him further on, closer to the moon float, which looked larger and higher and brighter than it had from his yard. The people of the parade—now also larger and higher and brighter—each touched it in turn. There were so many people. The boy didn’t know how they could all be touching it at once. They were a tide of multitudes pulling and pushing against the moon. The girl lead him through, bumping them past a crowd that was both too small and too big all at once. When they got there she put her hand on the gigantic moon and guided his hand up to do the same. It felt warm, far warmer than the boy had expected. Like sand in the sun.
And then they were moving away, back through the crowd, but the boy kept his eyes on the moon. He saw all the hands pull away at once as lines begin to split down the moon from the top and bottom. Then—slowly at first, but then faster—the moon cracked open like a pomegranate. At first the boy worried that he’d broken something somehow, the float, a spell, a heart, something. But as the moon broke and broke again, falling into pieces on the platform that held it up, the boy saw smaller moons inside it, all the size of baseballs.
The tiny moons peeled apart from each other, and began to lift up towards the air like balloons. The crowd followed after them, cheering and clapping. The girl followed the crowd and the boy followed her, cheering and clapping along with them all, losing himself in a way he had wanted to for a long time.
He had expected the parade to stop when they came to the beach. Then, when the parade kept marching, he expected them to stop at the water. Then, when the parade kept marching, he expected them to stop somewhere in the water. But when he came to the end of the beach the crowd before him kept going. The floats were floating. There were schools of small fish moving around people’s legs like flocks of birds. The boy hesitated before putting his feet into the water, but the girl stepped ahead and gave his arm a yank and he was moving again.
The tiny moons drifted ahead of the crowd and the crowd marched after them, walking deeper and deeper into the harbor. Walking out much farther than they should be able to. The boy felt the warm Summer water climb up his legs inch by inch and stop at his calves. It did not seem to go any deeper—for him or for anyone else—no matter how far out they went. He passed a tall sign that said DANGER: STRONG CURRENT, DEEP WATER in a bright red diamond, and yet the water wasn’t even high enough to wet the bottom of his shorts. Everyone marched on, down the very middle of harbor, as if they were heading straight out to sea. Ahead of them the moon, the real one, the one in the sky, seemed larger than ever. The boy could feel the light of it on his skin, and it only felt like it was getting closer.
That same white moonlight, shining off the faces of the crowd, made each of them look like they were carrying a torch. The girl saw him looking, and pointed in the sky above the boy. One of the tiny moons hovered above him, moving up and out to sea, just ahead of his own steps. There was another above the girl. And everyone else. Everyone there, with their bright faces, just composed a stream of white lights in the water, following after a stream of white lights in the sky.
Then, at the edge of the harbor, it all ground to a stop. The boy bumped into the girl. He was confused. His eyes moved from once face to another, but none were looking at him or at anyone else. The laughter and noise had all wound to a stop. The girl touched his shoulder and pointed up.
The moon—the proper one—was no longer ahead of them, but above them. On top of them, almost. The crowd had formed a circle right below the moon, as if they were planning to catch it, but the moon did not move. Instead, all of the tiny moons ascended to it and fell inside with a ripple and a splash, like they were being dropped in a bathtub.
The boy had expected more laughter when the last small moon floated into the big one. Instead, one by one, everyone fell beneath the water. The boy began to worry again. He didn’t know if they were sinking or submerging themselves. Were they drowning? Would he? What would…. The girl grabbed his nose between her thumb and her forefinger, and with her other hand grabbed her own. She looked down at the ocean at their legs, and then began to descend. The boy followed after her. Then they were underwater.
In that moment, no one in the parade was a reflection of something smaller. They were not tiny moons. They made up something larger and more beautiful. Each of them was a moon, but each of them was the moon. Together they were a reflection of something bright and huge and beautiful. They were one of a pair of twins on either side of an ocean. Two things that that could never be the same nor could be quite different. Two things that were not together or apart, because they were the same hot light.
The boy felt the water run over his warmed skin and thought This is the sea, and then he felt it move over everyone’s skin and he thought I am the sea. He looked up and thought I see the moon, and then he thought I am the moon. In that way he got to be everyone there, and everyone who wasn’t there. In that way the girl beside him had become a part of him. In that way they were all a part of everyone. In that way, in the light of a moon he’d never truly seen before, he saw himself. The girl let go of his nose. He could still feel the laughter rippling down the tide and found that he was laughing too. Everyone was laughing, and it was beautiful and he could hear it. He looked at the girl, laughing rough bubbles out into the ocean, and felt thankful. She had led him here and let him listen to the sound of the whole world at once.
It was still night time when the boy woke up, drooling onto his lawn chair, but it wouldn’t be for much longer. The bottle of lemonade was beside him, the ice melted and the drink spilled out onto the lawn. The mosquitoes had beaten him to wakefulness and hovered around his head as he stood. He could hear cicadas beginning to growl from the trees. There was no sign of a parade. He was not wet with ocean water. And yet, when he slapped his arm to kill a bug, he nearly yowled with pain. He had a bad burn on his arms and—he checked—yes, on his legs to. He touched his face and found it the same.
But his skin was not red and itchy and warm, as if he had spent too long on the beach. The burn was so bright and pale it was almost luminous. It glowed with a brilliant white color, like the moon the boy now saw sinking below the horizon. 

1.3 A Penny

a penny

copyright 2015

A Penny

a story by

Joshua Kenny

 

The curfew was a red-orange that night, the sort of aborted color that hung in the air and left you wondering if they meant it to be red or was it in fact orange, and you worried because the difference meant an entire hour. The street was narrow, and even if I were caught, it would be worth it. There was no other way I could…
“Penny for your thoughts?”  A stranger stepped in front of me. I jumped. He held out a penny, bright in the street lamp’s flickering light, between two grimy fingers. His face was hidden. The air was silent.
“A penny.”  I forgot the red-orange. I took the coin from him, rubbed it between my own fingers. It was warm and lighter than I had imagined, smaller than it looked in the pictures, but real.
“What’s your name?” asked the stranger.
“Wilhelm.” I stared at the penny.
“Wilhelm, do you want my penny?”
I knew the price, but I did want it.  How lucky I was.
So I let him have my thoughts in trade for my desire. I closed my eyes and let him through. I could feel him stumble around inside at first, uncertain, looking for all my thoughts, finding some and then others, sorting through them and collecting them. He grew comfortable and moved around more deliberately. I was thankful. It was always better if they knew what they were doing.
When I opened my eyes, I saw that he had collected them all in a small, glass jar. They popped about, flitting against the glass, the lid, and back against the glass. Like trapped fireflies, they were caught bits of my past. Pink at first, then a soft green as they grew used to their new, cold environment.
The stranger had not taken thoughts of her, though. I kept those from him, locked away in a box in the corner of my mind, hidden under the shrouds of frustration and desire. She was my first thought when I woke the next morning, when I looked into the mirror at the end of the room. I walked slowly toward it, approached the figure within it. I held out my hand and felt the cold, smooth surface. I did not recognize the person who stared back.
“Stranger,” I said in a whisper.
I looked down. In my hand, I still held the penny. I would have to break curfew again to see her. The only time those in quarantine were ever near, as they were shuffled past the wall of iron bars along Over Street.
Tonight I would show her the penny.

1.2 The Lighthouse

76e9fd11708092910162f686077bf63dcopyright 2015

The Lighthouse

a story by

C. C. Green

 
From childhood I had been no great lover of the company of others and so, for a long time, it had been my habit to spend vacation time indulging in the solitude of a calm and thinly populated corner of the coast. A retreat, you might say. A chance to get away from the people and things that, during the rest of the year, took up so much of my time.
So it was, then, that during one such Summer, after a particularly difficult year, I found myself walking coastal cliffs near the small village where I usually took up residence. At my usual slow pace, walking stick in hand, I ambled along a forgotten cliff-top as I took in familiar sights and sounds.
Reflected sunlight sparkled from the calm sea below. A clear sky, uninterrupted by cloud, merged at the horizon with the darker blue of the ocean. In the distance a flock of seagulls gave throat to their sadness as they wheeled.
Over the cliffs a gentle sea breeze blew, stirring the short grasses at my feet. Below, the waves, innocent as they undulated from sea to shore, broke against fractured rocks with unexpected ferocity, sending plumes of spray high into channels cut in the cliff face by millennia of patient assault.
As I surveyed these peaceful offerings, I stopped for a moment and shaded my eyes against the glare of the sun. As I looked out to sea, I saw the indistinct smudge of a ship resting lazily on the horizon as white tips appeared and disappeared.
On a whim, I decided to change my route and take the path along the cliff-top rather than, as was my original intention, to meander back to the heathers and gorse of the headland. The day was fine and the sea breeze an amicable companion.
A little way off there came into view a structure which, oddly, I had never noticed before. A lighthouse. I was struck by the sharp contrast it made with the bare and windswept panorama before me. It had been built precariously at the head of the cliffs, and was surrounded by a dry stone wall.
With nothing better to do and with no particular itinerary to fulfill, I thought to detour from the route I had set for myself and inspect the lighthouse. So, taking a worn path amongst the heathers and grasses, I started the half mile walk.
Just after midday, with the sun at its highest and most intense, I came to the stone wall that enclosed the lighthouse and thankfully rested on it. Putting my stick to one side and wiping perspiration from my brow, I gazed at the lonely and seemingly uninhabited outpost. A small but stout door presented itself at the base of the tower, while a few windows appeared to be randomly inset along its height. Clearly there was obvious need for such a building in this setting, but there was about the place a sense of abandonment, desertion. For a brief moment, this observation produced in me a sharp feeling of isolation. I felt utterly alone. Curious and half wishing to dispel this transitory but uncharacteristic sensation, I decided upon a closer inspection of the property.
The tower was cool to the touch and produced in me an immediate sense of the unyielding character of the structure as it stood unmoved though battered by storm and blanched by burning sun.
As I looked up, I marveled at the majestic pinnacle of the tower with the sun breaking through its glass. Then, for the briefest moment, a vague shape seemed to obscure the sun as if inside a body crossed and blocked the light. I squinted. The shape was gone. A seagull, I assumed, had flown across, or perhaps a trick of the light. My feeling of isolation and unease grew. I looked around me for some sign that another might be present, but I was met only by rocks, heather, and the stone wall. Feeling like a fool at being caught off guard by these sensations, I made up my mind to dispel my anxiety. Taking a step towards the door, I decided to knock and make the acquaintance of whomever I should find, if anyone were there at all.
I tapped on the weathered wood, but was greeted only by an echo. I waited. Inside, no foot falls followed, no sound that would suggest an occupant might have heard me at all. I knocked again, more loudly. I waited, but still there was no indication that I had been heard. Tentatively, I put my hand on the handle of the door. To my surprise, I felt an unexpected coldness. The tarnished metal of the latch gave an icy chill which seemed to be carried from inside the tower. I paused. Perhaps the door was locked? Perhaps this was an automated beacon which required no one to be in residence? Was my mind getting the better of me? Why was I finding reasons not to at least try the door? Ignoring the sensation of coldness in my fingers, I popped the latch smartly and the door opened. Half expecting to be confronted by the whine and labored creak of old and poorly lubricated hinges, I was greeted only by the scraping of wood over a stone floor as the door opened inward to the darkness of the room beyond. Listening again for any sign that an occupant may be aware of my presence, I stopped and craned forward. I could hear nothing except the sounds of waves breaking and wind whistling over the open doorway.
I could see only darkness penetrated here and there by the faint light from the small windows I had observed outside. Indistinct shapes crouched in the gloom, but there appeared to be no movement. In a weak attempt to penetrate the shadows, I narrowed my eyes but was unable distinguish any other features.
Moments passed and still there came no sign of a light keeper. Somewhat unsettled and ever less enthusiastic, I called out, hoping now that the lack of a response would negate my original plan of entering the tower. For a reply, I heard the creak of what I presumed to be another door, but nothing else.
Under the circumstances and with a growing concern that I might be trespassing, I reached for the handle with the intention of closing the door behind me. I heard a voice.
Startled by this apparent answer to my call, I froze. A voice. Faint and indistinct, but definitely a voice. Immediately I experienced a resurgence of uneasiness to which I been prey before. I was sure that eyes now observed me from both inside and outside the building. I felt isolated and vulnerable. I tensed and, for a moment, I was conflicted between the urgent need to look to behind me and the necessity of directing my attention to the shadows in front of me. I stepped back and hastily cast a glance over my shoulder to the scene outside. All was as it had been before. Perhaps it was the very stillness of the place that unnerved me?
Composing myself  and shaking off this thought, I was abruptly struck by a new predicament. My instinct was to retreat. To leave the lighthouse behind me and return to the village. On the other hand, not to now enter the building after a perceptible response from the resident would, doubtless, produce further difficulties. Particularly since I had opened the door unbidden and called out. Assessing this dilemma, I reminded myself again, although with less conviction, of the irrationality of my previous behavior, and in so doing I decided upon a course of action. Warily, I entered the tower and shut the door behind me. The scent of salt water and the odor of disuse rose to welcome me. With gradual adjustment to the gloom and the pale glow of light coming down from above, I was able to make out old ropes, chains, and tackle piled upon the floor. A rusty bucket on its side, weather-beaten wooden crates, corroded tools of various shapes and sizes, an aging table against a wall and upon it a neglected oil lamp. Carelessly thrown on the ground below this was a heavy but shabby coat of some dark material. Rising before me into the heights of the tower was a wrought iron spiral staircase which appeared not to have seen paint for many a year. Still there appeared to be no evidence of an inhabitant. I called out again, louder this time. No answer. Steadily, I made my way around the objects strewn across the floor. I heard only the crunching sound my boots made as they ground the dust and dirt underfoot. Stepping into a patch of light, I took the handrail of the staircase and looked upward.
The spiral of steps climbed out of sight into the upper reaches. Placing a foot on the first stair, I measured its resistance and ability to take my weight. Despite a scrape of metal and a vibrating clang, it seemed that the structure would not collapse. Heartened by this observation, I began to ascend. Listening all the time for an occupant, I heard nothing but echoes of my footsteps.
Gradually I climbed to the second story of the building, and once again surveyed the scene before me. Much as it had been below, there appeared to be no contemporary signs of habitation. The room, however, or landing, was perceptibly smaller than the first floor room, reflecting the narrowing of the tower as it rose.
A murky window allowed sunlight from the outside world to enter. Particles of dust disturbed by my entrance glinted in the air around me. An old moth-eaten upholstered chair stood tattered next to a low, worn table. Aging, grimy pages from a yellowed newspaper lay at intervals upon the stone floor. A dull tin cup, its contents long since drunk or evaporated, stood on the table as did an empty, wax encrusted candlestick.
The look of the place was confusing. The room below was obviously used for storage, and perhaps necessary financial accounting. Here, though, instead of a chair and table, I expected to find an oil heater, oil buckets, things used in the maintenance of the light. In looking over the unusual items I found there, my earlier apprehension began, once more, to overcome me. There was something about the place that didn’t work. Something that was so plain I should have noticed it straight away, but what was it? It was not the cold air and moldy atmosphere, nor the nature of the objects before me. Nor was it the arresting stillness of the place, nor the silence that pierced my senses. The place looked abandoned, but something nagged at the back of my mind. Something I had seen. Something so obvious it hid in plain sight.
I looked at the floor and staircase that continued to rise above me. There were no foot prints, other than my own, to be seen. No impressions of any kind in the accumulated dust. Then it was clear to me. Nothing could have entered here. Everything was covered  in a thick layer of dust untouched for who knows how long. What then of the voice I believed I had heard? What of the creaking door and the shadow I had seen above?
I froze as the weight of my discovery amplified my anxiety. In an effort to rationalize my fears and suppress a rapidly rising panic, I began to address each of these questions. The shadow? A gull flying near the peak of the tower. The creaking door? The sound of an old and disused building settling. The faint and distant voice from within? This had merely been some trick of my mind. Yet, the sound had given the distinct impression of a voice, unintelligible though it had been. Try as I might, I was unable to ignore the conviction that the sound I had heard was, indeed, a voice. And if what I had heard was a voice, could I also now trust the reliability of my reasoning with regard to the other phenomena?
Despite the chill of the air, I began to perspire as I turned the thoughts over and over in my mind. Still I came back to where I had started. The voice.
As if reading the turmoil of my thoughts, there came again the sound of a rusty door hinge above me. I jumped. Then came a further muffled utterance. Louder to be sure, but with the same formless and indefinite quality, whispering something I was unable to decipher. Rendered inert by the chaos of my thoughts and this sudden onslaught of ambiguous noise, I found myself unable react. I stood transfixed, as if waiting for the passage of time itself to make a decision for me.
My skin began to crawl. I felt as though I were being studied—as if I were being observed as each imagined terror carefully chose its method of attack.
To retrace my footsteps was to reenter the gloom below and run headlong into the arms of what my mind now told me was surely waiting for me. On the other hand, to advance and continue climbing the stairs was to meet the source of the sounds I had heard above.
With my imagination summoning up faceless beasts lurking both above and below, preventing both advance and retreat, I was rapidly overtaken by a another fear shouting to be heard above the scream of the others. Standing still and waiting, I thought, might also cause me to fall victim to whatever anonymous horrors stalked the darkness.
My body unlocked and spurred on by this new dread, groping again and again for the least perilous course of action, I finally reasoned, irrationally—for I had no rationale left to me—that I could only continue to climb the stairs and confront whatever lay in wait for me.
Timidly I took another step, and then another. I sensed movement in the shadows. In answer, I climbed faster and with less care, quickly closing the distance between myself and the next landing for fear that whatever it was I had seen or thought I had seen might catch me at my heels.
As I climbed, the air grew colder. The odor of salt water and the rotting stench of neglect began to claw at me. The light afforded by the upper windows created dramatic divisions between illumination and shade, sharply silhouetting what few objects came into view.
I climbed past ever smaller and darker levels, each showing less evidence of use than the one previous. At last my ascent was halted by the termination of the spiral stair in one last tiny room. My breathing was labored, my legs weak from exertion. I took a quick look down the stair, expecting to see some cloaked phantom or slavering ghoul close behind me. There was nothing save thin billows of dust thrown up in my wake. I turned again, fearing the now greater threat of this perhaps not so empty room presenting itself to me. A door led out to the balcony while a set of smaller steps climbed up to the service room.
Holding my breath, I strained to hear any noise that might offer some explanation for the horrid images in my mind, or at least provide me with a location upon which to bring to bear my now acutely heightened senses. I could hear nothing but the beating of my own heart. Absurdly, in the same way that a child believes that hiding under the bedclothes will protect him from the creatures of his nightmares, I let the breath in my lungs out in a slow whisper through pursed lips, for fear that I might give away my position with a loud exhalation. As I did so, I became aware of a faint mist before me, the chill air making my breath tangible before it evaporated. Again I narrowed my eyes and attempted to pierce the gloom, but with no better result than before. I surveyed what I could of the chamber, my vision darting from one small patch of light to another, acutely aware that what was visible to me was only a tiny fraction of the whole.
Barely perceptible against the wall across from me stood a silhouette. Unformed and shapeless, I got the impression of a figure menacing by its very stillness. Abruptly, there came a sound from the shadows. A soft, barely perceptible sound like cloth rubbing cloth, suggesting movement. I stumbled backwards, my throat clenched. I began to tremble uncontrollably. Then I saw the silhouette move.
The same weak voice. A slight, ephemeral sound. I shrieked as I made sense of the previously indiscernible words. My name had been called! Whatever was there had spoken my name! As if to emphasize this appeal, there came into the afforded light an extended hand. Grey and wrinkled, the outstretched fingers beckoned as if summoning me. I screamed. The sound hung in the cold air like a shroud. The voice, louder and more urgent now, called my name once more. The hand gestured more aggressively.
Impatience saturated the air as the plaintive request became an order. The figure began to shuffle forward. In a weak effort to demonstrate that I was, however feebly, armed, I lifted my hand in defense. My walking stick, however, was not with me. In a frenzy such at that which accompanies feverish and, to a greater extent, futile action, I looked about me. My stick was neither on the stair nor at my feet. Instead, I discerned its gnarled, weather-beaten form on the floor before me! It lay perhaps half the distance between myself and the phantom. Dust covered its shaft while faint green tinges of patina displayed its comely autograph on the brass handle and tip.
No, this surely could not be my possession! It lay at a remoteness that did not correspond to my entry into the room. It could not be mine! And yet, its brass horse-head handle, unusual because I had borrowed it from the handle of a discarded brass fire poker, immediately announced it as familiar. In a flash of memory that befitted a clearer and more sober mind, I recalled that I had placed my stick to one side when entering the tower.
Without the corporeal, if ineffectual, defense of the walking stick, I could only stumble back onto the stairs, turning to race away from the horror before me. As I plunged downward, I imagined that cold, wet fingers would surely grasp at me and take my life.
At each turn, shadows rose up and clutched at me; with each retraced step my name was screeched from above.
The clang of metal steps under my feet resounded with the ululation that was the calling of my name. At each landing, the small windows grew darker. At length, only feeble illumination remained. With a last effort, I hurled myself at the closed door, but I was unable to open it!
I turned to see the phantom slowly, ponderously alight from the final stair. Its form was now more visible than before. I could now see the tattered remnants of its habiliments. On its feet was the rotting residuum of a once stout pair of boots. The thing made its way toward me, hands now extended as if in supplication. I fell to the ground and looked into the face of the spectre that was to be my doom.
Its face, such as it was, came close to mine. Its cold breath nauseated me. The remains of the creature’s clothing I now recognized to be my own, the boots as those that were on my own feet. I closed my eyes against the repellant figure, and my mind against the terrifying evidence of my own eyes.
In a whisper laced with sorrow and anger, the phantom cried my name! The thing with my face called my name again!
From taught, colorless lips it warned, it implored, it pleaded, it beseeched me as if knowing that any entreaty would serve no purpose.
“Do not walk the cliffs!” it cried. “Do not walk the cliffs alone!
Quos Deus vult perdere, prius dementat.

1.1 The Amalgamated Brotherhood of Spooks

skull candles

The Amalgamated Brotherhood of Spooks

a story by

J. K. Bangs

A Letter To The Editor
It is with very deep regret that I find myself unable to keep the promise made to you last spring to provide you with a suitable ghost story for your Christmas number. I have made several efforts to prepare such a tale as it seemed to me you would require, but, one and all, these have proved unavailing. By a singular and annoying combination of circumstances in which only my unfortunate habit of meeting trouble in a spirit of badinage has involved me, I cannot secure the models which I invariably need for the realistic presentation of my stories, and I decline at present, as I have hitherto consistently declined, to draw upon my imagination for the ingredients necessary, even though tempted by the exigencies of a contract sealed, signed, and delivered. It is far from my wish to be known to you as one who makes promises only to break them, but there are times in a man’s life when he must consider seriously which is the lesser evil, to deceive the individual or to deceive the world, the latter being a mass of individuals, and, consequently, as much more worthy of respect as the whole is greater than a part. Could I bring myself to be false to my principles as a scribe, and draw upon my fancy for my facts, and, through a prostitution of my art, so sickly o’er my plot with the pale cast of realism as to hoodwink my readers into believing what I know to be false, the task were easy. Given a more or less active and unrestrained imagination, pen, ink, paper, and the will to do so, to construct out of these a ghost story which might have been, but as a matter of fact was not, presents no difficulties whatsoever; but I unfortunately have a conscience which, awkward as it is to me at times, I intend to keep clear and unspotted. The consciousness of having lied would forever rest as a blot upon my escutcheon. I cannot manufacture out of whole cloth a narrative such as you desire and be true to myself, and this I intend to be, even if by so doing I must seem false to you, I think, however, that, as one of my friends and most important consumer, you are entitled to a complete explanation of my failure to do as I have told you I would. To most others I should send merely a curt note evidencing, not pleading, a pressure of other work as the cause of my not coming to time. To you it is owed that I should enter somewhat into the details of the unfortunate business.
You doubtless remember that last summer, with our mutual friend Peters, I traveled abroad seeking health and, incidentally, ideas. I had discovered that imported ideas were on the whole rather more popular in America than those which might be said to be indigenous to the soil. The reading public had, for the time being at least, given itself over to moats and chateaux and bloodshed and the curious dialects of the lower orders of British society. Sherlock Holmes had superseded Old Sleuth in the affections of my countrymen who read books. Even those honest little critics the boys and girls were finding more to delight them in the doings of Richard Coeur de Lion and Alice in Wonderland than in the more remarkable and intensely American adventures of Ragged Dick or Mickie the Motorboy. John Storm was at that moment hanging over the world like the sword of Damocles, and Rudolph Rassendyll had completely overshadowed such essentially American heroes as Uncle Tom and Rollo. I found, to my chagrin, that the poetry of Tennyson was more widely read than my own, even though Tennyson was dead and I was not. And in the universities whole terms were devoted to the compulsory study of dramatists like Shakespeare and Moliere, while home talent, as represented by Mr. Hoyt or the facile productions of Messrs. Weber & Fields was relegated to the limbo of electives which the students might take up or not, as they chose, and then only in hours which they were expected to devote to recreation. All of which seemed to indicate that while there was no royal road to literary fame, there was with equal certainty no republican path thereto, and that real inspiration was to be derived rather under the effete monarchies of Europe than at home. To Peters the same idea had occurred, but in his case in relation to art rather than to literature. The patrons of art in America had a marked preference for the works of Meissonier, Corot, Gerome, Millet–anybody, so long as he was a foreigner, Peters said. The wealthy would pay ten, twenty, a hundred thousand dollars for a Rousseau or a Rosa. Bonheur rather than exchange a paltry one hundred dollars for a canvas by Peters, though, as far as Peters was concerned, his canvas was just as well woven, his pigments as carefully mixed, and his application of the one to the other as technically correct as was anything from the foreign brushes.
“You can’t take in the full import of a Turner unless you stand a way away from it,” said he, “and if you’ll only stand far enough away from mine you couldn’t tell it from a Meissonier.”
And when I jocularly responded to this that I thought a mile was the proper distance, he was offended. We quarreled, but made up after a while, and in the making up decided upon a little venture into foreign fields together, not only to recu­perate, but to see if so be we could discover just where the workers on the other side got that quality which placed them in pop­ular esteem so far ahead of ourselves.
What we discovered along this especial line must form the burden of another story. The main cause of our foreign trip, these discoveries, are but incidental to the theme I have in hand. Our conclusions were im­portant, but they have no place here, and what they were you will have to wait until my work on Abroad versus Home is completed to learn. But what is important to this explanation is the fact that while going through the long passage leading from the Pitti Palace to the Uffizi Gallery at Florence we–or rather I–encountered one of those phantoms which have been among the chief joys and troubles of my life. Peters was too much taken up with his Baedeker to see either ghosts or pictures. Indeed, it used to irritate me that Peters saw so little, but he would do as most American tourists do, and spend all of his time looking for some especial thing he thought he ought to see, and generally missing not only it, but thousands of minor things quite as well worthy of his attention. I don’t believe he would have seen the ghost, however, under any circumstances. It requires a specially cultivated eye or digestion, one or the other, to enable one to see ghosts, and Peters’s eye is blind to the invisible and his digestion is good.
Why, under the canopy, the vulgar little spectre was haunting a picture-gallery I never knew, unless it was to embarrass the Americans who passed to and fro, for he claimed to be an American spook. I knew he was not a living thing the minute I laid eyes through him. He loomed up before me while I was engaged in chuckling over a particularly bad canvas by somebody whose name I have forgotten, but which was something like Beppo di Contarini. It represented the scene of a grand fete at Venice back in the fifteenth century, and while preserved by the art-lovers of Florence as something worthy, would, I firmly believe, have failed of acceptance even by the catholic taste of the editor of an American Sunday newspaper comic supplement. The thing was crude in its drawing, impossible in its coloring, and absolutely devoid of action. Every gondola on the canal looked as if it were stuck in the mud, and as for the water of the Grand Canal itself, it had all the liquid glory under this artist’s touch of calf’s-foot jelly, and it amused me intensely to think that these patrons of art, in the most artistic city in the world, should have deemed it worth keeping. However, whatever the merit of the painting, I was annoyed in the midst of my contemplation of it to have thrust into the line of vision a shape–I cannot call it a body because there was no body to it. There were the lineaments of a living person, and a very vulgar living person at that, but the thing was translucent, and as it stepped in between me and the wonderful specimen of Beppo di Somethingorother’s art I felt as if a sudden haze had swept over my eyes, blurring the picture until it reminded me of a cheap kind of decalcomania that in my boyhood days had satisfied my yearnings after the truly beautiful.
I made several ineffectual passes with my hands to brush the thing away. I had discovered that with certain classes of ghosts one could be rid of them, just as one may dissipate a cloud of smoke, by swirling one’s outstretched paw around in it, and I hoped that I might in this way rid myself of the nuisance now before me. But I was mistaken. He swirled, but failed to dissipate.
“Hum!” said I, straightening up, and addressing the thing with some degree of irritation. “You may know a great deal about art, my friend, but you seem not to have studied manners. Get out of my way.”
“Pah!” he ejaculated, turning a particularly nasty pair of green eyes on me. “Who the deuce are you, that you should give me orders?”
“Well,” said I, “if I were impulsive of speech and seldom grammatical, I might reply by saying Me, but as a purist, let me tell you, sir, that I’m I, and if you seek to know further and more intimately, I will add that who I am is none of your infernal business.”
“Humph!” he said, shrugging his shoul­ders. “Grammatical or otherwise, you’re a coward! You don’t dare say who you are, because you are afraid of me. You know I am a spectre, and, like all commonplace people, you are afraid of ghosts.”
A hot retort was on my lips, and I was about to tell him my name and address, when it occurred to me that by doing so I might lay myself open to a kind of persecution from which I have suffered from time to time, ghosts are sometimes so hard to lay, so I accomplished what I at the moment thought was my purpose by a bluff.
“Oh, as for that,” said I, “my name is So and So, and I live at Number This, That Street, Chicago, Illinois.”
Both the name and the address were of course fictitious.
“Very well,” said he, calmly, making a note of the address. “My name is Jones. I am the president of the Amalgamated Brotherhood of Spooks, enjoying a well earned rest from his labors on his savings from his salary as a walking delegate. You shall hear from me on your return to Chicago through the local chapter, the United Apparitions of Illinois.”
“All right,” said I, with equal calmness, “If the Illinois spooks are as Illinoisome as you are, I will summon the board of health and have them laid without more ado.”
Upon this we parted. That is to say, I walked on to the Uffizi, and he vanished, in something of a rage, it seemed to me.
I thought no more of the matter until a week ago, when, in accordance with an agreement with the principal thereof, I left New York to go to Chicago, to give a talk before a certain young ladies’ boarding school, on the subject of “Muscular Romanticism.” This was a lecture I had prepared on a literary topic concerning which I had thought much. I had observed that a great deal of the popularity of certain authors had come from the admiration of young girls–mostly those at boarding-school, and therefore deprived of real manly company–for a kind of literature which, seeming to be manly, did not yet appeal very strongly to men. In certain aspects it seemed strong. It presented heroes who were truly heroic, and who always did the right thing in the right manner. Writers who had more ink than blood to shed, and a greater knowledge of etiquette than of human nature, were making their way into temporary fame by compelling chaps to do things they could not do. I rather like to read of these fellows myself. I am no exception to the rule which makes human beings admire, and very strongly, too, the fellow who poses successfully. Indeed, I admire a poseur who can carry his pose through without disaster to himself, because he has nothing to back him up, and, wanting this, if by his assurance he can make himself a considerable personage he falls short of genius only by lacking it. But this is apart from the story. Whatever the general line of thought in the lecture, I was, as I have said, on my way to Chicago to deliver it before a young ladies’ boarding school. I should have been happy over the prospect, for I have many warm friends in Chicago, there was a moderately large fee ahead, and there is always a charm, as well, in the mere act of standing on a dais before some two or three hundred young girls and having their undivided attention for a brief hour. Yet, despite all this, I was dreadfully depressed. Why, I could not at first surmise. It seemed to me, however as though some horrid disaster were impending. I experienced all the sensations which make four o’clock in the morning so dreaded an hour to those who suffer from insomnia. My heart would race ahead, thumping like the screw of an ocean greyhound, and then slow down until it seemingly ceased to beat altogether; my hands were alternately dry and hot, and clammy and cold; and then like a flash I knew why, and what it was I feared. It suddenly dawned upon my mind that, by some frightfully unhappy coincidence, the address of Miss Brockton’s Academy for Young Ladies, whither I was bound, was precisely the same as that I had given the vulgar little spook at Florence as my own. I had entirely forgotten the incident; and then, as I drew near to the spot whereon I was to have been made to suffer through the machinations of the local chapter of the Amalgamated Brotherhood of Spooks, my soul was filled with dread. Had Grand-Master-Spook Jones’s threat been merely idle? Had he, even as I had done, dismissed the whole affair as unworthy of any further care, or would he keep his word?–indeed, had he kept his word, and, through his followers in the Amalgamated Brotherhood, made himself obnoxious to the residents of Number This, That Street?
My nervous dread redoubled as I neared Chicago, and it was as much as I could do, when the train reached Kalamazoo, to keep from turning back. And the event showed that I suffered with only too much reason, for, on my arrival at the home of the institution, I found it closed. The door was locked, the shades pulled down, the building the perfect picture of gloom. Miss Brockton, I was informed, was in a lunatic asylum, and two hundred and eighty-three young girls, ranging from fourteen to twenty years of age, had been returned to their parents, the hair of every mother’s daughter of them blanched white as the driven snow. No one knew, my informant said, exactly what had occurred at the academy, but the fact that was plain to all was that, some two weeks previous to my coming, the school had retired at the usual hour one night, in the very zenith of a happy prosperity, and gathered at breakfast the next morning to find itself wrecked, and bearing the outward semblance of a home for indigent old ladies. No one, from Miss Brockton herself to the youngest pupil, could give a coherent account of what had turned them all gray in a single night, and brought the furrows of age to cheeks both old and young, nor could any inducement be held out to any of the pupils to pass another night within those walls. They one and all fled madly back to their homes, and Miss Brockton’s attempted explanation was so incredible that, protesting her sanity, she was nevertheless placed under restraint, pending a full investigation of the incident. She had, I was informed, asserted that some sixty ghosts of most terrible aspect had paraded through the house between the hours of midnight and 2 A.M., howling and shrieking and threatening the occupants in a most terrifying fashion. At their head marched a spectre brass band of twenty–four pieces, grinding out with horrid contortions and grimaces the most awful discords imaginable–discords, indeed, Miss Brockton had said, alongside of which those of the most grossly material German street band in creation became melodies of soothing sweetness. The spectre rabble to the rear bore transparencies, upon which were painted such legends as, “Hail to Jones, our beloved Chief!” “Strike One, Strike All!” and, “Down with Hawkins, the Grinder of Ghosts!” This last caused my heart to sink still lower, for Hawkins was the name I had given the vision at Florence, and I now understood all. It was only too manifest that I was the cause of the undoing of these innocents.

Spring 2015

copyright 2015
photo by linda orlomoski

Come in, come in! Warm thy cockles! Welcome to the Spring 2015 issue!

Brilliant fantasist Alina Rios opens this volume with her creepy yet heartwarming ‘Midnight Man.’

Christine-Marie L. Dixon then shares ‘Ephemeral,’ a prose poem of depth, beauty, and sadness.

Heartfelt and intrepid writer Deirdre Fagan then offers us ‘There Once Was A Man Who Thought Too Much.’

Sue Ann Connaughton brings us a wonderful and warm story from her own hearth, ‘Wrought from a Perukemaker’s House.’

Then last, but certainly not least, Ed Nichols brings us a tale from the Deep South with ‘Last Born.’

Enjoy this issue of Beorh Quarterly, please, because, after all, these are the best stories out there!

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Midnight Man

 a story by

Alina Rios

There once lived a puppeteer.
He was not very old, nor very young. Nobody could really tell and nobody asked. His name was Bartolo.
All his life, Bartolo made little puppets for a small theater he set up outside his shop. He would make puppets all week, and as he made them, the puppets told him their stories.
Then on the weekend, he would have a show of all the puppets’ stories. The neighborhood kids knew about this and looked forward to the show, because inevitably, there was a puppet who needed rescuing, or an evil puppet who had to die. The dying was especially exciting and dramatic, because Bartolo would orchestrate a beheading for such puppet, with a giant knife.
One day, after the show, Death visited Bartolo in his shop and told him he had seven days to live.
Bartolo scratched his head. How was he to spend his last seven days? It was nice, after all, of Death to give him this warning. But Bartolo was a lonely man. He had no wife, or kids, or much in the way of friends. And while the town’s kids loved his puppet shows, they were scared of the dark man who put them on. They whispered that the man was um bruxo, a warlock, because he made the puppets talk in such different voices—it didn’t seem possible any other way.
Bartolo wished he had more time. He wished for another chance at life, for maybe a wife and a family. But alas…. Instead, he decided to make the best puppet he could, just something to be remembered by.
The puppet he was building was very tall—twice his height. It was a man. Bartolo dressed him in the finest clothing, and, since it was a week before Carnival, he dressed him in bright colors. The puppet’s tuxedo was green, with gold shiny buttons. On his head Bartolo placed a black top-hat made of the finest silk. The hat he swapped for a case of his best paints at the little store down the street that sold all manner of things. In the same store, he found two pairs of deep purple trousers, which he paid for with his mother’s wooden comb that had one broken tooth. From these, he fashioned one pair of long trousers for the puppet.
Bartolo stood back and examined his work. The purples didn’t exactly match, the darker being at the bottom, but the puppet still looked like a well-dressed man.
Now for the face. Bartolo shaved his thick, black beard and gave it to the puppet along with his gold tooth, his prized possession, which he took out with pliers and stuck in the puppet’s mouth. The blood from the tooth dripped onto the puppet’s beard and glistened in the candlelight.
All this time, as Bartolo was working, the puppet was silent. He didn’t tell him a single story. Not even a whisper escaped his painted lips. “Just as well,” thought Bartolo. “I don’t have time for another show.”
On the evening of the seventh day, Bartolo costumed himself with his puppet and walked out the door. It was the night before Carnival. The puppet’s clothes covered Bartolo completely—only his eyes showed through. People pointed at the strange puppet. Some whispered, frightened. Some laughed, thinking it was somebody’s clever Carnival idea. For the first time in his life, Bartolo felt free, because he wasn’t Bartolo anymore, he was just a puppet.
His feet in hard leather boots clicked against the cobblestones. Around him, the city was alive: bursts of laughter from groups of people for whom the celebration started earlier, embarrassed giggles of young couples who couldn’t find a dark-enough corner, kids squealing from the welcome confusion of being up past all reasonable bedtimes, and the insistent chirps of bats distraught by all the activity below.
Smells of chocolate and sweet spices, hot oil, limes, and a welcome freshness of mint drifted from open doorways. It all reminded Bartolo of the Carnivals with his mother. Him, excited and proud to be at her side. The spicy goodness of coxinha, still hot from the bubbling oil. He could almost feel the burn on his fingers, trying to hold it, too anxious for the first bite as his mother blew on it, the softness of her breath—the essence of love.
His back ached from having to keep it straight, but he didn’t mind. His heart beat faster than it had in years, as if trying to prove to him that it was not ready to stop.
It was a perfect last day.
Close to midnight, Death joined Bartolo and walked at his side. “I like what you did with your time,” he said.
“Thanks, I do too,” said Bartolo.
At midnight, Death reached in and took Bartolo’s heart. Bartolo collapsed on the gritty cobblestones. The puppet man fell next to Bartolo, his blank eyes reflecting the dark sky.
Death was about to swallow Bartolo’s heart, but he stopped and chuckled, as an idea came to him. He bent down to the puppet man and put the heart into its hollow chest.
The puppet man sprung up to his feet. He looked down at Death.
“Thank you!” he said.
“Don’t mention it,” said Death and walked off down the hill.
The puppet man watched Death leave with some sadness. Then, he walked in the opposite direction, following the sounds of the Carnival. A group waved him over to their make-shift table and poured him a drink. A woman gave him a hug. He walked dizzily among the revelers and somebody was always near, sharing a story or a joke. No one was afraid of him. In the morning, they made him march at the front of the Carnival procession. The puppet man was joyful.
The next day, the papers told about the mysterious boneco gigante, a giant doll that walked the parade. They called him Homem da Meia Noite, Midnight Man, and the name stuck. People loved him so much that a few years later, they made him a wife, whom they called Mulher do Dia, Woman of the Day. The two were very happy and had two children, a boy and a girl, of course, whom they named A Menina de Tarde, Girl of the Afternoon and O Menino de Tarde, Boy of the Afternoon. They asked Death to be their godfather, to which he agreed, chuckling happily.
Now, every midnight before Carnival, the whole family walks the streets to the joy of all people.
And if you ask Midnight Man, as he’s the only one of the family blessed with a human heart, and so the only one who can speak, he’ll tell you he lives happily. But in the dark, away from the lights and the people, he misses Death.
Russian-born Alina Rios now breathes in the coffee-scented air of Seattle, edits technical documentation, and reads her work at local open mics.  She was recently short-listed for the Gulliver Travel Grant. Her poetry has appeared in Mused and Rust & Moth and is forthcoming in Neon and Starline. www.alinarios.com

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Ephemeral

a prose poem by

Christine-Marie L. Dixon

Sometimes I look upon the setting sun and weep because I know I cannot keep it safely inside my dresser, folded neatly between linens and handkerchiefs. I cry because I know that I shall die without swallowing the moon into my soul or exchanging confidences with a marigold. Sons and Daughters, you shall grow old; your knees shall someday soon turn to creaking hinges, echoing through lonely halls of timbered prisons and clanging gongs. You will exchange fading whispers for your favorite songs, the words of which you do not know. You will look at the stars and repent that you did not try harder to scale their heavenly depths. You will cry that you have wasted countless precious breaths conforming to the rise and sink of mankind’s demands and the office which fed you for fifty years will quickly crumble, dissolved into sand.
Standing on this side of eternity my heart breaks because I know there is not enough time to love the rushing winds and roaring ache of ocean waves. My soul craves a road paved around this earth with my feet, every secret measured by my heartbeat.
Christine-Marie L. Dixon is a writer and musician from Detroit.

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There Once Was a Man

Who Thought Too Much

a story by

Deirdre Fagan

There once was a man who thought too much thought too much thought too much. He lived on an island in the borough of wee wah wah and slept not at all. His back was strong his legs were long and he wore a moustache below his nose and fur one supposes upon his chin.
It all started when he was just a boy and was dreaming about it.
About what he was dreaming is what we do not entirely know but it had something to do with what is what and what was what and so he went and found a book and then he sat within a crook and as he turned the pages of that book he began to think and think about it. As he read and thought and read and thought he wondered what if anything others thought so he took that book and gathered some more and went from his crook to a crescent on a hill where others who also began as boys left as men and he not only thought and thought about it more than others seemed to but he somehow some way on many a day began to teach other boys and girls to think about it too.
One day when all the books were put away and he was thinking thinking about what he had done and what he would do and how to give to others all the thought he ever knew his thinking grew and grew.
This man who thought too much thought too much thought too much first saw a thinning in his hair. His eyes squinted to procure what was not there but all he saw was that part in his hair. So he thought and thought and thought about it and then he washed what was not there with little care and left the rest to bear.
On another day while walking down a summer lane he thought he saw a willow in the air and taking the willow as just as fair as what was departing from his hair he grasped it between thumb and forefinger and put it in the part that was there. The willow blew and blew about leaving his part without and as he chased it down the lane his legs that were too long seemed to disintegrate in thin air! With each stride his part widened and his gait spasmed and soon it was as though his legs were not there — he was gliding on air!
The man who thought and thought about the thinning in his hair was now losing his legs his only pair. This he thought was quite rare.
With himself down to his legs that were not there and with that part dividing wider his thinning hair he began to think and think and think about what had gone awry for before he had always seemed quite spry. Strong back strong legs and fur beneath his nose one had never supposed that his grasp between thumb and forefinger would no longer grip what was there but would somehow lead him to what was not. The book’s leaves which he would leaf when he was loafing in the summer breeze upon that hill that he could no longer climb had the answer that he was trying to find but as he reached for another book to see what others’ thought and determine what had somehow brought what had been brought upon him to others too his grip gave way to another waylay — his arms had grown taut.
Not for naught but first it was the thinning of his hair and then the legs that were no longer there and now the arms had grown thin and taut and about this he thought and thought.
The more he thought the more he read and the more he read the more he learned that it was not the thinning in his hair that had led to this despair but the loss of strength in his legs his only pair and his arms which now no longer felt there. Before he knew it his lips would cease moving and air that had always been without a care would be heaving — it would be entirely rare and unfair.
Those that knew not what to do made absent queries:
Had this to do with the thinning in his hair?   Had his hair to do with the thinking that had been? What happened to the legs no longer there? What about that willow placed in his hair?
No no nothing is so unfair that it punishes those who think so fair yet somehow the thinking that had had such a good run caused people to start to point and stare not at the thinning in his hair but at the thinning of what was still there.
Unmoving the rest were moved as he thought and thought and thought about it. While he could not bring back the legs no longer there or the arms that were in need of repair and while his lips only gently passed air his thinking thinking thinking taught and taught and taught all about it.
Like the other boys and girls who glide on air because the body they once had is no longer there it was not because of thought that life brought too much to bear. The man who thought too much had not used up all his thinking — those fools! There are no such rules.
But if we do as the man had done and we think and think and think until our own days are done we may too go taut (or not) but not for naught because we will have taught others not only how to live but how to die and through thought we may even try and write down for others to read how to survive not only the loss of this man and other boys girls and women like him but we may devise a plan for how to undo what his thinking had not done but with some more thinking what could have been done.
If we can do this we will somehow have won.
Deirdre Fagan is Associate Professor of English and Coordinator of Composition at Quincy University.  She is the author of Critical Companion to Robert Frost and has published stories, poems, and articles in various journals and magazines.   Her interests include but are not limited to American poetry, memoir, and creative writing.

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Wrought from the Perukemaker’s House

 a story by

Sue Ann Connaughton

 

A brass wedding ring, clay pipe, tiny porcelain doll, poison bottle, and large bones—these are some of the artifacts that my husband unearthed while excavating under our kitchen during renovation. Our research indicates that the artifacts date from the late 19th century, although the house was built in the late 18th century. We devised a legend around the items, one that incorporates love, marriage, childbirth, and unexplained death, not necessarily in that order. Intrigued by our discoveries, I urged my husband to dig deeper. I wanted to uncover the 18th century. But alas, he declined, on the basis that it was more prudent to finish the kitchen renovation than to spend several more weeks shoveling and groveling, while taking all meals from the microwave.
The house was built in the 1790’s for John Archer, a perukemaker. The current kitchen did not exist then. Cooking took place in the keeping room, which is now our dining room. I wonder if John Archer made his wigs in the keeping room, by the cooking fireplace, the only source of heat on the first floor at that time. Or, perhaps he made them in the front room, where he could open the Indian shutters and hang a shop sign on one of the 12 over 12 windows.
Maybe John Archer chose the middle room for his workroom, labeled the “dismal room” on the electric box, by another owner, presumably because the windowless room lacks natural light, or views of the outside world—features that make it perfectly suited for my writing room.
As we move from room to room, renovating each one, we observe the imprints left by former inhabitants: the wooden stair treads, worn smoothly in the middle from decades of boots and shoes – we’ll never hide those with carpeting – and layers and layers of wallpaper and paint, with still brilliant colors that reveal different eras and fashions, peel by peel. Occasionally, we find dated initials under a beam, or on a floorboard, charming signatures of previous carpenters or handy homeowners. Regarding the floors: they all slant, causing cracks in the walls and ceilings, which recur, no matter how often they’re patched.
The renovation of our antique home progresses slowly and may never be completed. Future owners will make changes, stamp the house with their own touches. We hope they’ll be charmed to discover my husband’s initials carved into the kitchen shelves he built, and a copy of my first published story, hidden inside a closet in the dismal room.

 

Sue Ann Connaughton writes from a drafty old house in New England. Her short pieces have appeared in various journals, most recently: Counterexample Poetics; One-Sentence Story Anthology; Barnwood Poetry Magazine; The Bicycle Review; The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts; GlassFire Magazine; You are here: The Journal of Creative Geography; and Fabula Argentea.

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Last Born

a story by

Ed Nichols

 
A warm, late summer breeze passed over Mike Caudell as he sat on his back porch and stared at his pasture, and beyond to the woods and mountains in the distance. He much preferred sitting on the porch than inside the house this time of the year. He knew that this porch had also been the favorite spot for his father, and for his granddaddy. Three generations of Caudells. Across the pasture and just inside the tree line was Goshen Creek. He could not see the creek from where he was sitting—but he could visualize it. Mike thought, I need to go up there, see the creek, walk in the woods. It’s been awhile.   
His wife, Laura, opened the back door. “Supper’s ready!”
Mike went inside to the bathroom. He washed his hands and face and combed the cotton lint from his hair. Laura had fixed a good supper like she always did on Friday nights. He didn’t remember why she liked to do it on Fridays, but it was okay with him. She had cooked green beans, sweet potatoes, black-eyed peas, fried squash, fried chicken, and cornbread. Sometimes on Friday nights, Mike felt guilty having so much good food in front of him. When they finished eating, he leaned back in his chair and said, “Dad-gum, Laura, you are a great cook.”
“Thank you,” she said. “You deserved a good meal.” He picked up his empty plate and tea glass.
Laura said, “You go in the living room and watch TV, or go to the porch if you want.”
“No thanks, I’m going to help you clean up. I’ll wash the dishes.”
Laura let him help, and soon they had the dishes and pots washed up, and everything put away. Then they went to the back porch and sat in their rocking chairs. Mike said, “I been meaning to ask you, I’ve forgotten, but why do you always cook such a big meal on Fridays?”
Laura laughed. “I got it from mama. She always cooked a big meal on Fridays. Course we had a big family, lots of mouths to feed when I was growing up.”
“I’ll say.”
“She, and me too, like to have lots of leftovers for the weekend.”
Mike nodded. “I reckon you’ve taken right after her.” Then he went silent, and Laura did too. He knew that she was thinking—the same thing he was thinking. It would have been nice to have shared tonight’s meal with children. He needed to change the subject. He pointed toward the mountains in the distance, barely visible now in the twilight. “I think I’ll hike up to the creek tomorrow. You want to go with me?”
“No. I guess not,” Laura said. “I want to go into town and get a few things. I’ll go with you when the leaves start turning and we’ll have a picnic by the creek.”
“That’ll be nice. Leaves will start turning in a few weeks.”
“You go on tomorrow,” Laura said as she reached over and put her hand on his arm. “You gonna check on Grandpa Caudell’s liquor still?”
“I will,” Mike said, and he teased her, “I might just run me off a batch while I’m up there.”
“That’ll be the day! But you be careful, and look out for snakes.”
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The next morning Mike took his walking stick off the hook on the back porch, and he headed out. He passed the barn, then walked across his pasture. After a little ways, he stopped and turned around. He could see Laura hanging clothes on the clothesline. She still has a fine figure, he thought. He whistled as loud as he could and she jerked around like she’d heard a shot. He waved. With her hands on her hips, Laura stared at him. Finally, she waved and blew him a kiss. He continued his walk across the pasture with her on his mind; thinking of her long hair and beautiful body. What he had a hard time living with was the knowledge that she wouldn’t ever be able to have a baby. He remembered the night of the emergency hysterectomy, and the words the doctor told him after the surgery. “Laura will never be able to conceive.” Laura had cried for days and he had consoled her as best he could. She gradually came out of her depressed state—but he knew she still thought about it. One night, a couple of weeks back, he had heard her crying in the bathroom. He didn’t say anything. He remembered one particularly bad night when she told him that he should divorce her, and marry someone who could give him children. They rarely spoke of it anymore.
After crossing the pasture, Mike entered the woods. It was mostly hardwoods: oak, popular, sweetgum, dogwood, along with large clumps of mountain laurel and rhododendron. He loved the smell of the forest and the familiar feeling it gave him as he walked to Goshen Creek. It was a good-size creek, not deep but with high banks. His granddaddy had actually lowered the creek several feet in places so it would not flood the pasture during heavy rains. Mike crossed the water on the old footbridge, also built by his granddaddy. After another mile in the woods, he came to a narrow draw, bordered on each side by heavy thickets of rhododendron. He walked carefully down the draw, being aware of slippery rocks and leaves. The sun barely touched some of the ground in the draw.
Halfway down, beside a spring head, had been the perfect location for his granddaddy’s liquor still. Mike walked over to the remains of the still and sat down on a large rock. The same rock he was sure his granddaddy had sat on as he watched glass jars catching the liquor as it flowed from the tap. The still was gradually being consumed by nature. He knew that the copper would remain for thousands of years, but most of the wood was rotting away. He ate a sandwich Laura had fixed, and he reached down and drank a palm full of water from the spring.
Mike sat quietly, listening. He thought of his granddaddy and the last time he saw him in the hospital asylum. He was discharged from the army at Fort Gordon in Augusta, Georgia and when he called home, his mother had begged him to please go by the asylum in Milledgeville and visit Granddaddy Caudell, so the family could have a report on his condition. Once in Milledgeville, Mike found the State of Georgia Mental Hospital. He parked and went in the large, white administration building and signed in the register. He was escorted by a black man, dressed all in white, to his granddaddy’s room. He barely recognized his granddaddy, asleep in bed. The black man said, “Mr. Caudell sleep ‘bout all the time, now.”
“Can he get up, you know, walk around?”
“No,” the black man said. “He tries, but we don’t let him.”
“What do you mean, we don’t let him?”
“Not let him get up and about, and fall and break his hip or arm,” the black man explained.
Mike nodded and walked closer to the bed. His granddaddy looked terribly thin—older than his age. He said to the black man, “I think he’s about eighty-five.”
“No, he’s almost ninety. He’s been a good patient, and when he first arrived we thought that someday he might get better and could go back to his home.”
“But, he’s gotten worse.”
“That’s right. Downhill all the time. Got bad dementia now.”
Mike stood, watching his granddaddy sleep. He reached over and touched the old man’s face. His granddaddy turned his head, opened his eyes, and smiled at his grandson.
“Grandpa?” Mike said.
The old man opened his mouth and said, “You…been?”
Mike didn’t know how to respond. He said, “Yes, sir, I’ve been in the army. Just got out.”
The old man nodded and smiled. He turned his head and stared at the ceiling. After a moment, he turned back and said, “Tell…yore daddy…look after…still.”
Mike nodded, unable to tell his granddaddy that his only son was buried in the American
Cemetery in Normandy, France. And that he knew as much, having been told many years ago. He watched as his granddaddy moved his head, shuddered slightly and closed his eyes. The black man turned to leave the room. Mike stood for another minute looking at his granddaddy. It dawned on him again that once his granddaddy died, he would become the only surviving male in his family.
Sitting on the big rock now at the old still, Mike tried to visualize his granddaddy lying in that bed. The last time he saw him. Then he tried to guess when the still had been built—he wished that he had asked his granddaddy more about the still. Probably the early thirties, he figured. It was never busted by law enforcement, and his granddaddy was never arrested. He had been lucky on those accounts. Mike listened to the wood’s sounds: birds, squirrels, and once he thought he heard a deer snort. He used to hunt these woods, just as his daddy had hunted them before the war. He wondered how it would feel to have someone come to your house and announce that your only son had been killed in a far-away country. He couldn’t imagine what went through his granddaddy and grandmother’s minds. It would be enough to drive some folk’s crazy, Mike figured.
That night Mike told Laura about his hike, and that he had sat for a while on the big rock and thought about his granddaddy, and his daddy, too. Later, getting in bed, he turned off the nightstand light and leaned over and kissed her. Laura said, “You don’t hate me anymore because I can’t have a baby, do you?”
“Of course not. You know better than that.”
“Well, I wouldn’t blame you. Remembering your kin, and the fact that your name will die with you, could be aggravating to lots of folks.” Then she leaned over and kissed him. Just before Mike drifted off, he heard Laura ask, “Did you see any snakes?”

Winter 2014

copyright 2014
GIF pumpkin ghosts
Winter is here yet again. Where does the time go? Oh, there is no time? Hmmm… yes, I might agree after all. Just a tool, a construct, a metaphor, if you will, of growth and movement toward something better, smarter, faster–more peaceful and full of light. Let that be our hope, will we?
Welcome again to Beorh Quarterly.
In this issue Beth J. Whiting offers us “Cupcakes,” but be warned–they’re whimsically flavored.
Then Rebeka Singer shows us “Foreign Lands,” and lets us into her heart and memories. If you have a sense of romance and hope, this one will appeal to you.
Don’t be surprised, though, when Germaine Paris demands that you “Don’t Eat That” while taking you into the mind of a child and her view of family and world.
Brian Mateo then brings us, with “The Bethesda,” journal entries from a time which may seem long ago, if for the truths that we are all in this together, and that time is indeed an illusion.
Prayer, in a variety of specified forms, is, notwithstanding, the very lifeblood of humanity. Angela D. Sargent reminds of this most important task in “The Prayer.”
Thank you for once again sharing your time with Beorh Quarterly. Next issue? February 2015.
Scáth Beorh
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Cupcakes

a story by

Beth J. Whiting

 

Maria didn’t have any friends.  The only joy she had in her life was cupcakes.  She made them with her mother every night.
When they went to the grocery store every week, it was a wonder.  Her mother let her decide the frosting and the batter.  Sometimes she did funky combinations like coconut frosting with butter pecan batter.  You could do anything.  Her mother packed four cupcakes for her every day when she went to school.
One day she was sitting alone at lunch when a skinny boy named Ian asked her for a cupcake.
This was a huge problem.  How could she give up a cupcake?
Yet something told her to comply.  So she gave a cupcake to him.
He asked her something strange. “Do you like bugs?”
“No.”
“I think they are the most wonderful thing in the world, Maria.  People dismiss them as ugly, but they are fascinating creatures.”
Ian invited Maria to his house–the first time that had ever happened to Maria.  She could not say no.
She let her mother know before she went.
Ian’s house was a normal suburban home with a green lawn.  It didn’t prepare her for his room which was full of bugs in cages.
“Here are my bugs.  You know, I’ve surrounded myself with them so much that I now know their language.”
Yeah right, Maria thought. Then she heard Ian speak in a foreign tongue. He pointed to his ant farm.
“They’re tired all of the time.  They rarely complain.  Grasshoppers cry all the time.  That’s what they do when they sing.  They’re very romantic creatures.”
Maria didn’t know what to make of Ian. The next day at school he sat by her and asked for a cupcake again. She sighed.  She was going to have to ask her mother for five cupcakes now that this boy was asking her for one.
Ian brought an encyclopedia out and talked with Maria the whole hour about bugs. She stood there eating her cupcakes, spacing out.  She didn’t understand what he was saying.  Not that it mattered–she had company.  That was important.
Ian invited Maria over to his house again. It was creepy hearing grasshoppers and fearing any second that a bug might crawl over her.
Ian told Maria that he had a ‘friend crush’ on her once he saw she was as much of a weirdo as him.
“What do you mean?” she asked offended.
“There isn’t a second in the day that I don’t see you with a cupcake.”
“My mother and I make them every night.  Cupcakes are very complex.  You can do many different flavors.”
“What about cake?”
“I like cupcakes because of the wrapper, and the fact that I can hold it.”
“I like cupcakes too.  Would you like to go with me to a cupcake shop tonight?”
She had heard about these cupcake shops.  Ian and Maria lived in a small town.  The nearest one was a thirty minute drive. Maria’s mother told her that was too far to go for a cupcake.  But Ian’s mother drove them to one.
Ian talked the whole ride over about bugs.
His mother kept switching topics on purpose.  It seemed like she had to deal with this all of the time.
When they got to the cupcake shop, it was a glorious surprise for Maria.  She got three of them.  She would save them for a snack for tomorrow night.  She had one at the moment.  It had filling and was delicious.  If it was up to her, she would have the whole store.  They tasted professional, not homemade.
Ian got two. “We go to this cupcake shop on a regular basis.”
“Really?” Maria asked, stunned. She wished she had a mother that took her places, but her mother went to work and was always tired.
Maria went to Ian’s house again with the secret idea in her mind that they would go to the cupcake shop again.  They did.
Maria thought that Ian had the best mother in the world.
Ian’s mother told her, “I’m glad my son finally has a friend and not just a bug.  I’m getting worried about him.”
That night Ian talked to the bugs in his room just as much as Maria.  She couldn’t understand a word he said.  She  spaced out and hoped he would talk to her again.
Maria invited Ian over to her house.
Maria and her mother were making cupcakes.  Her mother had the great idea to make cupcakes for their class.
Ian helped with the baking.
When the class had them the next day, a kid complained, “There’s an ant in my cupcake!”
No one finished the cupcakes.
Maria knew that that Ian must have had a mix-up, and she was mad.  It was her only chance for the class to like her.  She didn’t sit next to him at lunch the next day.  She walked passed him the following day and saw him sitting all alone and sad.
He pleaded with her. “I didn’t mean to do it.  I must have been playing with them while I was making cupcakes.”
Maria sat there wondering if the class really like her anyway? “Fine.  You have to do something for me though.”
“Anything.”
“Teach me how to talk to bugs.  If I’m going to be your friend,  I have to understand what you’re saying.”
So Ian spent a week teaching Maria the different languages of the bugs in his room. She listened into an ant farm one day. “They’re talking about working and how they’re tired.”
“I know.  You’ll discover worlds you’ve never known.”
Maria was glad to have made friends with Ian.

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Foreign Lands

a story by

Rebeka Singer

We ate our Fourth of July dinner around a glass table on the outdoor patio. Dad and I sat on the back steps while Mom washed the dishes. We sat outside the sliding glass door facing the evergreens that lined the brick driveway. The bricks he had lain himself when they bought the house sixteen years before were faded now—zinfandel once gleamed startling hues of raw salmon.
The blue sky softened to gray.
“So you don’t want to not live here then?” I asked.
He looked away. “There’s a place, Death Valley. Bad Water. Furnace Creek.”
I clutched my knobby thirteen-year-old knees.
“No one can take the heat.” He sighed. “There’s dehydrated remains. One place in the valley there’s a wagon with a skeleton underneath it with a plaque that reads: ‘He got to this point, he couldn’t go no further.’”
I searched his face. His eyes drifted off and returned in another vein. “Well even if I go for a little while and then come back here to die—that’s okay.” His face was damp. “But honestly, I prefer Central America, the Caribbean Islands—” Dad trailed off as his mind wandered to foreign lands. “I’ll join the Somali pirates and sail the Gulf of Aden!”
I was dazed, struck by anger and wild admiration: he was a dreamer.
“One day I’m going to take you to the desert, Lily.” His voice was soft. “Death Valley, 135 degrees. No one can take that heat. No one will be there.” He stretched his hand out to the horizon and moved it in an arc to paint the invisible picture of the heat before my eyes. “It’s the closest you’ll come to God.” He looked mournful. It looked natural, I thought.
“Want to go set off those fireworks now?”
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We stood in the driveway. The New England summer heat possessed us. Dad hunched atop unsteady legs. A homemade cigar sat loosely between his teeth. He unloaded the bundle of fireworks onto the bricks and retrieved a sparkler bearing a bubblegum-hued fuse. He handed it to me and held up a lighter.
“Now don’t burn me,” he said. “Not too close.” The fuse lit and he pulled his hand back as from an ignited stove. He smiled, folding his fingers over the opposite palm.
Smoke began to fill the driveway. I coughed. Dad tacked up a spinning firework to the telephone pole on the street. He summoned me to light it with the sparkler.
It spun rapidly, emitting different colored spears. A pink and white diamond, green sunbeams, and little blue stars twinkled then faded into empty space. Nothing was left but smoke and silence.
I felt alone amid the remains and urged Dad to light another. We went through three spinners and six sparklers. Smoke swirled down the street, filling the driveway and rising up through the branches of a weathered beech. The leaves of the tall oaks along the sidewalk whispered in the uncanny stillness.
“Very few people have been to the Moon,” he said as he looked off into the dim skies. “When we come back from the desert, Lily, you can say you’ve been to the Moon.”
I tried to follow his gaze, tried to find the faint ivory Moon buried in the twilight sky. It seemed to flicker in and out of sight.

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Don’t Eat That

a story by

Germaine Paris

Mwuah. Mwuah. Mwuah. My mom makes that noise whenever she’s putting on her red lipstick. She smacks her lips together and makes this fishy face, and goes, mwuah, mwuah, mwuah. Sorta makes me wonder that if fish had red lipstick to put on, would they make human noises? You would think so, right? Like we borrowed their underwater noises, so they can borrow our land noises? They do have lips too, you know, skinny ones. I guessed so because sometimes we ate fish for dinner, and I’ve noticed its lips before, on that grilled up, flaky head. Have you ever looked at a fish’s head? You know, if you thought with your head instead of your stomach for a second, just a second, you can imagine the fish’s last glubs of water, like it said, “That worm tricked me!” or “I’m dead!” All of the fish I ate had its mouth all open, and their eyes are all fried up, so I imagined them to say those sort of things. Maybe thats why I never ate the head. My dad did though. He would munch on the fish eyeballs and the fish brains, cracking the skull in his teeth, eating the bones too. I don’t know, I never looked, but I suppose it would make you smarter if you did eat it because my dad always said smart things. “Sacrifices. Sometimes in life, we have to make sacrifices in order to reach our goals,” is what he would say after every dinner. I remember it word for word too, even in the way he pronounced them. Kinda have to, especially with how my dad looked at me. He would stare at me. Not that there’s anything wrong with me or that there’s a fish scale stuck in my tooth, but he’s just the seeing-not-talking sort of type. We’d be standing right across from each other, and he’d have his steaming cup of tea in hand, and he’d be staring at me. It was like we had staring contests all the time, except I’m pretty sure my dad doesn’t know about that game because when I blink, the game isn’t over. He continues to just stare, and I know he doesn’t zone out or anything because he wiggles his eyebrows at me to let me know that he’s looking at me. I always laugh when he does that because he has these furry thick eyebrows. Or sometimes he doesn’t do that at all, and says something smart again. Like this one time, I had this homework assignment I got from school. I was supposed to read some books and record them on this caterpillar worksheet. This caterpillar had circles for its body, and for every book I read, I was supposed to color in one of its circles. I remember I got done coloring in the sucker and so I decided to hang it up on our fridge. I used the bright magnets too. I remember I stood there, waiting for my dad’s response. He stared at me, and didn’t wriggle his eyebrows like I expected him to. Instead he said, “Why don’t you make the body longer?” Longer! Can you believe that? After all that hard work, my dad wants the caterpillar longer! Well, I did it, I tell you. I turned that millipede in and you know what my teacher said? “A gold star for you!” Yep! My dad doesn’t say much, but when he does, it’s important to listen. You can laugh at him, I know his eyebrows aren’t too normal looking, but you should hear what he has to say sometimes. Just don’t eat the fish heads, he eats those.

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The Bethesda

a story by

Brian Mateo

I.
“Father said the sea was for noble fishermen. Bethesda is my own to decide what to do with. I am choosing the helm, picaroon or not.”
 The Journal of Bartholomew Winsock,
Captain of the Bethesda
6 June 1897
As we plunged through the sea, the storm conducted our first duet. The waves grab hold of you as if it is leading us through this dance. Maybe people will ridicule me for being a blockhead. Maybe I’ll get a really nice obituary as ‘The Man Who Tried.’ Regardless, I am doing this for myself.
While you sway us back and forth, my heart is in the back of my throat, but my faith is anchored to you, now more than ever. Putting on my raincoat this morning was probably the hardest step to take. Now it’s time to reach our goal.
The thunder rumbles as if Poseidon strikes the Earth itself with his trident. I hold your helm as tight as I can while the rain wipes the salty residue from my face.  My faith is a child ahold of your skirt.
II.
“The final number of our stroll is about to commence and I see a strip of land along the horizon. What was a 27-league journey felt like a decade. The docks of this Island shall be your home.”
 The Journal of Bartholomew Winsock,
Captain of the Bethesda
8 June 1897
The shillings do not fill the void in my soul. Rainy days remind me of you. The day we had the courage to escape from the mundane to encounter the unknown. The day the storm almost took us with it. I am who I am because of you.
Now I must find refuge in an unfamiliar island, with the value I placed on you weighing my thoughts. The memories of boarding you with father and his fishing crew haunt me at night. We sailed to feed the family and earn the respect from the town. I miss seeing dad’s smile as he came home from a good day’s work. I miss boarding you.
After dad’s passing when the men dismissed my efforts, I cried on your side while wiping away the brine from the sea. It was then when I longed to understand the conundrum beyond the horizon.
I have braved the storm, now I must bid adieu to the child inside. The nostalgia is the price I must pay for the comfort of wealth you have given me. My quest for adventure has plagued me to depart from you. And you, well, you were born to travel. Born to see the world.
III.
“But that is not me. Or maybe it is? I long to have you by my side. The mysterious sea keeps me restless in the moon light.”
The Journal of Bartholomew Winsock,
Captain of the Bethesda
11 August 1897
The carnival will assist in deceiving my thoughts today. Clowns and pantomimes hide their faces away to bring entertainment onto the island. Balloons are floating as if they are trying to seek new refuge. Something I must do when my shillings deplete.
The steadiness of land makes me sick as I long for the surging waves.  Memories of you inundate my mind as the sand prickles my callous feet. I lust for the silky deck that only the bravest of men have been able to walk on. I crave the saline kiss of the sea.
The allure of a fortuneteller compels me. Hesitantly, I give in. With a look of pity, she waives her fee and begins her quest. Setting the stage for my vision, she flips over an hourglass as I inhale the scents of wisdom from her left palm.
Suddenly I feel myself swimming through the stream of my subconscious. Then a voice starts to creep in:
“You are hungry, anxious for more. You left for the mere fact that you needed to live your life. But what is life? Is it grounding your roots and blossoming future generations to carry your name? You are a wanderer, someone who needs to seek the unknown. Not many are comfortable being transient, but you were born to do it. You will be remembered. Not by a few but by many. You know what you have to do. It’s been in your heart all along.”
The sudden snap of her fingers jerks my head from the table. I thank the fortuneteller and begin to seek out what I have been yearning for. At the pier, Bethesda’s new owner dresses her up for another voyage.
The nostalgia creeps in, but I am lucky you waited, my love. As an act of penance, I give him the rest of my shillings begging to be his companion. He grants me access to join his quest and we set sail to new horizons. You belong to him, but my heart belongs to you.
IV.
“In memory of Bartholomew Winsock: The man who traveled the sea, although by his terms, and never letting go of the helm as it sailed into Poseidon’s possession.”
The Journal of Norman Hucsby,
last Captain of the Bethesda
29 November 1914

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Brian Mateo is an aspiring writer who works with historical fiction, fantasy, sci-fi and adventure. He currently resides in New York and works for Bard College. You can follow him on twitter: @brianmateo

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The Prayer

Angela D. Sargent

Penitent, enveloped in need, the prayer reaches above the prayer-maker, stretches up and up, tries to touch the Father’s hand. Color distinctions now made indistinct–age, status, experience all become insignificant. There is only Omniscience and thick hope in a candle-scented room. Trouble and worry, illness and pain struggle to sever themselves from salty, moistened lips. The prayer-maker weaves coil after coil until the rope is too heavy to carry. In flush and perspiration she hurls her prayer up to Heaven, hoping God will have mercy and send His healing balm.

Autumn 2014

copyright 2014

cinemagraph-gifs-cat

Welcome to you!
Again we enter the shadowed realms of the soul, there to discover kings and knaves, gentlemen and gendarmes, murderers and mistresses, metanoia and melancholy.
In this issue of Beorh Quarterly we begin with a deeply disturbing tale from Rebecca Troy, ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ whose title is drawn from the erudite spiritual writings of St. John of the Cross.
P. J. Gannon then brings us ‘Caesar,’ a delightful look at timeless and idyllic childhood–the selfsame childhood we loathe while we are yet children, but long for the older we become.
We then step back to our own childhoods, perhaps, or maybe to a childhood we wish we could have had, and hear the beautiful story of Einar and his woodland in ‘Adventures in a Skinner Box’ by new-classic writer Harley Staggars.
Ken Schroeder then graces us with his warm and witty work ‘Against the Yellow, Painted Arrow,’ the story of two English-speaking travelers in a not-so-English environment.
The story of ‘The Clock’ is then told by storyteller Ramona Scarborough, and her work rounds out this issue of Beorh Quarterly, home of ‘The Very Best Stories Out There!’
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Rebecca Troy

Dark Night of the Soul

(an entry from the
Lizzie Andrew Borden Diary
dated August 3rd 1892)
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a story by

Rebecca Troy

Small cuts. That’s all it would take. I cannot fathom the thoughts that would have gone through his head whilst committing this act. Why should I understand him? Not all men can be understood. I am tired. Now I am left with nothing; he means for me to have nothing. These tiny creatures meant the world to me and now they are gone, their heads severed delicately as if they were never there at all. Why is this my father’s way? I see no way for us to reconcile now. He means for me to carry on. He keeps pushing. I’ll soon have less than nothing left. I wish another to be my father. All little girls want is a father who doesn’t chop the heads off her beloved birds when she is at church serving God. God is the only man that would not treat a woman in this manner. I am certain that he means for me to take these bodies and put them somewhere where he is not reminded of what he has done. Cleaning up after a man is woman’s work. I am not going to clean this murder.
I could call Bridget to clean, but I know she will not. She has no stomach for this. When I cut myself during dinner, I watched while the blood ran onto the white linens. Bridget was quite beside herself. Mrs. Borden was also distressed, but for another reason. I see no value in having linens if we are not to use them. Perhaps she was upset because it was our only set, and now it is covered in a blood that does not match her family line.
I lift up one of the lifeless bodies for just a moment. This morning they were full of life and if they had ever wished to be freed, they received their wish, but not quite as they would have imagined I am sure. I kiss where their heads once lay. The coldness of their neck hit my lips immediately. I now understand what death tastes like.
Father always says the prayer before we eat. I go to church the most, but he says the prayers. He tells me that he was afraid that the neighborhood boys would come to visit the birds, and burn down the shed, but that does not explain the need to kill. I have no real appetite. I find sitting opposite my father a task. My stomach churns in disregard. I try to reach as far down as I can to retrieve a memory that I can hold on to, to  preserve some respect for him, but instead my mind is numb, unable, and now all I have left is this fork and knife and the food I must eat, if I am not to enrage father. I wonder what he will kill tonight?
Tell me all that I can do, Lord, tell me, tell me. If I have strength then let me see it. Tell me what needs to be done. I have come here, in your house, your church, everyday for as long as I could walk and now I am asking you for help. I have never asked anything of you before. I know you will answer. You have to. I have no one. I can no longer live in this manner. I have no understanding of comfort. I have no understanding of the fashion of life. I live as he has requested I live, with very little. I hate my father. I have enough dedication for ten men, you cannot desert me. I am alone with no way forward.
I have these thoughts, unnatural, unrelenting. Please understand that I know the Devil can have his way at any time. I cannot let him in. Where are you, God? Is the need for freedom a sin? I know if I give into certain urges then I will never be able to find my way forward. Only people with good hearts enter Heaven. I am a good and pure soul, but I cannot hold my soul in place forever. God has given me Mrs. Borden and my father, as tests of faith. I know that if I can keep them from destroying me I will be stronger, more able to be the person that I want to become, one free of sinful thoughts. I have prayed constantly since the morning of the slain pigeons but I cannot free my mind of thoughts of revenge. I will never say or do anything that will hurt my Father in Heaven. I wish to be with Him. In Heaven.
Father believes the worst of me. He does not see me. He murdered my birds because of it. He finds me disgusting. I refuse to marry a man who is like him. I refuse to live another life the same, with a cruel fate. I will not do as he asks. I will not marry. He can kill a thousand birds but I will not do as he says.
There is no one. Why do you leave me here, Lord, in this basement, cold and hidden? I have ceased eating so that I can better hear you, but you never speak. I stay in this dark space, no candles. Father’s tools lay against these forgotten walls, and sing a song of freedom. Should I listen? I need not be in the light. If you will not be there to guide me then there is no point in being able to see through the night. I cannot continue to live like this. Nothing. The promise of a new life beckons, if it will not be with You, then I will find another way. If I cannot be free, You cannot expect me to wait for Heaven. I must find a way. Forgive me, Lord, but I can no longer wait for You to hear me. Please understand that I am still Yours right up until the end, if You will still have me. No matter what action I take, know that in my heart I do it for You.
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Rebecca Troy attended Chelsea College of Art and Design in London, and took a BA in Feminist Theory from State University of New York Empire. She has written two novels and one graphic novel. Her second novel is YA fiction set in the rural South during the Civil Rights Movement. She is also an avid writer of screenplays, and runs a small film production company called Sub Floor Seven Productions. Rebecca is a recent graduate of the Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing at Goddard College.

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CAESAR

a story by

P. J. Gannon

One house on my route, a green cape, had a small side yard, where behind a cyclone fence the German Shepherd roamed. Each day, as I rolled up on my bike, a Schwinn Stingray with speckled banana seat and sissy-bar, he’d be out, chewing on his rubber ball. I’d try to be quiet. I never wanted him to know I was there. But one way or another, whether it was the squeak of my brakes or the lowering of my kickstand, I’d alert him. I’d approach cautiously, and, when his eyes, mean and penetrating, found me, his mouth would grow limp, the saliva-soaked ball dropping and bouncing aimlessly on the patio. He’d run at me as if there were no fence and for a moment I’d stop breathing, doubting whether there was one.
But it was real, as were his thick haunches, his foul breath that seemed to stretch the property’s length, and he’d collide with it and I’d be able to breathe again. On his hind legs, he was as tall as me and by his underbelly, whitish and lumpy, he looked twice my weight. His paws would grab hold of the horizontal pipe, right above the sign that read: BEWARE OF DOG.
One day, while I stood on the stoop waiting for the seventy cents that was owed me, I learned his name. Mr. Gianni, a muscular, loudmouthed man, was rummaging for coins in his tight Sassons but coming up short. The dog hadn’t stopped barking, and, finally having enough, he turned, his pocket linings hanging out, and yelled, “Shut up, Caesar!” Hearing that was like getting clobbered in the head with a baseball. I was dazed; my skin turned hot. Looking down at me, Mr. Gianni mumbled, “I can’t even think straight.” There was a menthol cigarette dangling from his lips and he released it and with his slipper squished it like my younger brother would the water bugs by our garage. “I’ll get you next week, okay?” I could hear the words but my mind had trouble shaping meaning; it was almost like listening to my grandmother speak Irish. “Next week. I’ll pay you. Don’t look so broken up.” I hurried to my bike and took a short cut across his lawn. “Off my grass, kid! I just put down a bag of seed!”
Caesar. One of the few names I heard once in my life and never forgot. According to my Children’s Bible, which I kept on my shelf above my bed, Caesar was the leader of the Romans, the men who had nailed Christ, my Savior, to the cross, the ones in the full page color pictures clad in armor and wearing helmets topped with what looked to be red brushes.  One of the Romans even threw dice for His possessions, while another with a sword pierced His side as He hung in agony. Those same men would later feed good Christians like me to lions. 
Caesar became the embodiment of evil in my neighborhood. I began terrorizing myself, wondering what awful things he’d done to lead Mr. Gianni to name him that. Before becoming domesticated had he ruled over a pack of killer dogs? Had he ripped the last paperboy to shreds? I’d come into the route rather suddenly when other kids who had applied at the same time, and some even before me, were still on a waiting list. Also, what kind of man would name his dog this? One I’d never seen in church. The entire house had lost its color. Everything about it, the asbestos shingles, the front door, the window boxes, the shutters, had been painted black by the brushstroke of the name. Caesar.
So, whenever I approached, I’d say the Lord’s Prayer. I also took to running to the stoop, sometimes with my eyes half-closed, or, when my courage faltered, throwing the paper from the driveway and getting the hell out of there.
Once, when I was getting set to throw the paper, Caesar hit the fence and the gate came ajar. I couldn’t breathe. A heart-stopping second later, he saw what had happened—he was no dummy—and sprung from the gate. I dropped the paper and took off. Running past my bike, I sensed him gaining on me. Oh, no. No!
In the street, next to Mr. Gianni’s Oldsmobile 98, I felt a stab on my right thigh, not unlike a bee sting, and then heard Mr. Gianni’s voice booming like an M80 detonating. “Caesar!” With tears in my eyes, I turned. The dog had begun making his way back. “He doesn’t bite!” Mr. Gianni was chuckling, an unlit cigarette in one hand, a lighter in the other. But my corduroys were torn and there was blood, right below the blue ink stain that had formed a few days before when my Bic pen exploded in Social Studies.
I grabbed hold of my leg; there were two small puncture wounds and wincing I limped back to my bike. Mr. Gianni, who was now heading down the walkway, had a look of disbelief on his face. “Oh shit! How about that?! I’m sorry, little guy!” He pulled out a handkerchief and crouched in front of me, his bald spot the size of Caesar’s rubber ball, and began blotting the wound. “Does it hurt?”
“A little.” And I started crying, not from the pain but from the whole ordeal.
“He’s got all his shots! Don’t you worry!” I nodded and wiped the tears with the back of my hand and when the bleeding stopped I got back on my bike. “Do you want a ride home?”
“No, I got more papers,” my voice trembling and I pointed to my bag.
“If your parents want to talk about this, they’re more than welcome.”
“Okay.”
“Here.” And he pulled out a twenty-dollar bill. It didn’t feel right but I took it anyway. “It won’t happen again. I promise you.”
The bill was crisp and fragrant and I folded it in half and slid it into my pocket. I could buy a ten-pack of Bubble Yum, Gobstoppers, Fun Dip, Reggie bars, catch Mr. Softee more than any other kid on my block.
Caesar was back behind the fence, the ball in his mouth. If that was all he had, and it appeared to be, I wasn’t afraid anymore and, with my spirits soaring, I pedaled off.
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Adventures in a Skinner Box

a story by

Harley Staggars

Kingdoms come in all sizes. The bigger ones – Sweden and Spain and England – have all been spoken for. But there are little kingdoms around that no one has claimed yet, and it doesn’t really matter how big they might be. A kingdom doesn’t necessarily have to occupy a physical space at all. There are kingdoms to be found in the clouds – in the fertile imaginations of children. Every boy, no matter how small or how many big brothers he may have, can be the king of someplace.
Einar ascended the throne during the Summer he was five years old – on the day he first turned his back on the sunlit field and ventured out into the shadowed world of the forest creatures. He did not go boldly, sustained and soothed by an unfaltering trust, into this great unknown; he was truly terrified. He knew there were great gnarling bears out there, and prowling wolves and screaming lynxes, and an endless array of goblins and savages lay in ambush within the foreboding darkness – creatures that dwelt nowhere but in the fantasies of a five-year-old, and in the woods behind his house. But he was driven by a more imminent and certain danger. Knute was after him.
Knute was a year older than Einar, and he was, even then, a formidable adversary and a veteran of the First Grade. Einar, on the other hand, had never been to school or anywhere else, and had done nothing worth mentioning in his entire life. He had, by virtue of his presence alone, become an embarrassment to Knute, who felt honor-bound to make him pay dearly for the disgrace he had visited upon the family.
Knute’s favorite instrument of retribution, whenever their mother lay down for a nap with three year old Erik, was a stick freshly dipped down the hole in the privy – a horrifying implement sufficient to reform the renegade and bring the rebellious heretic home to Jesus. But the administration of justice, being among the most sacred ceremonies that a six-year-old may be called upon to perform, requires the most thorough preparation, and one does not quickly and easily scoop up a truly good gob of such viscous admonition. Even if he has the perfect stick, with a crotch just below the business end, it takes time and determination to dig up material of just the proper consistency, with just the proper degree of tackiness. And Knute would settle for nothing less than perfection.
Having seen him select his stick and march resolutely toward his own private armory, Einar had been forewarned and had managed to acquire a moderate head start. But Knute was considerably faster, and he rapidly gained on his younger brother. As you may well imagine, the very tangible menace coming up so quickly behind him worried Einar substantially more than the remote possibility of unknown dangers lying in ambush on the path before him. He had given no thought to the direction he had taken in his flight until he suddenly found himself in the shadows of the woods. By that time Knute was hard upon him, and his alternatives had narrowed significantly. He could entertain no thoughts of turning back.
Momentum, emotional as well as physical, carried him more deeply into the woods than any man had ever gone before, beyond the point at which he could have nurtured any hope of survival. But it wasn’t until he was certain that Knute hadn’t followed him into that twilight region that his natural cowardice returned to sustain him.
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A rat in a Skinner box, as is taught in Psych 101, when placed between two negative stimuli of sufficient authority, will vacillate between the two until he finds the point at which the ratio of the distance to each of the stimuli is exactly equal to the ratio of their perceived discomfort. Once he locates this point, he will be paralyzed, unable to move in either direction until one of the stimuli is removed or the equilibrium is otherwise disturbed.
But the woods behind his house bore no resemblance to a Skinner box, and, unlike the rat, Einar hadn’t yet mastered the concept of ratios. He vacillated, but he failed to find that point of which Doctor Skinner had been so justly proud. Fear, in contest with his cowardice, drove him first more deeply into the lair of unknown dangers; then escalating cowardice drove him back toward his brother the avenging angel, and fear, again advancing, forced him once more into the shadows. In his panic he lost all sense of direction, a sense with which he had been but poorly endowed in the first place, and he succeeded only in running around the concentric circles of an ever-diminishing radius. And when at last he fell, exhausted, it was in the approximate center of all those circles he had just described – the center that may have been, in retrospect, his Skinner’s point.
He lay there with his face pressed into the aromatic carpet of spruce and balsam needles in a vain attempt to stifle the sound of his labored breathing. He could hear Knute pace back and forth through the tall grass, brandishing his unholy weapon and shouting what he believed to be obscenities. And Einar was certain that Knute could hear him just as clearly as he could hear Knute. Or, if not his brother, then God knows what other creature might be listening and, even now, measuring him against its calibrated appetite. He knew all the fairytales, and he understood the fate that awaited the unfortunate child who strayed beyond the protection of sustaining sunlight.
“Who are you? And why do you intrude upon my woods?”
He had known that the Bogeyman was out there somewhere, but he hadn’t expected to be discovered so soon.
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It was the English, who for centuries have been far too civilized to quiescently endure the petty problems of raising children, who contrived the legend of the Bogeyman. Though it may be difficult for folks here on the less-cultured side of the Atlantic to believe, not all English families can afford the luxuries of nannies to nurture and public boarding schools to warehouse their progeny. Some of them are forced by financial circumstances to actually wipe their own children’s noses and change their soiled linen. These unfortunate folk would welcome any artifice that would ease the odious burdens of parenthood. So, if the Bogeyman hadn’t already existed, it would have been necessary to invent him to silence noisy children and to set them properly on the path to righteousness.
The Bogeyman is not, contrary to the general assumption, an English invention; it is merely a clever adaptation of an already existing phenomenon. The English have long had a penchant for ordering the world according to ethnic differences: the Englishman, at the summit of course, followed in descending order by the Scotsman, the Frenchman, the Irishman, the Chinaman, and so forth down through the diverse family of man – and, at the very bottom, the Bogeyman.
Early English sailors exploring Indonesian waters often encountered, with ample repugnance and considerable trepidation, an enterprising people called the Bugis – a nation of loosely organized warrior tribes. Many of these Bugis had been driven from their homes during the reign of a particularly brutal prince, and, being excellent sailors and ferocious fighters, they naturally gravitated to the comparatively lucrative profession of piracy. Moreover, they had flaunted their barbarity by siding with the Dutchmen over the English in their competition to divide the world between them.
Of course England, herself, has never been burdened with an unseemly absence of pirates among its citizenry; most of her oldest and noblest families owe their eminence to one or more of their forbears who flew the Jolly Roger. But, as civilized men, they have always had the good grace to decry the practice and to deny any taint of ancestral brigandry in their own blood lines.
In the mind of the civilized man, piracy has always been, by its very nature, among the most despicable of crimes. The size of the small wooden vessels in which they plied their trade necessarily limited the size and weight of the booty that could be seized, and this unfortunate limitation dictated the class of citizens upon whom they preyed. Although the bulk of the wealth of any nation consists of the corn and livestock and other commodities with which, by the sweat of its peasantry, it has been blessed, this wealth is thinly distributed across the breadth of the land. It requires an efficient and well organized societal structure to properly plunder such bootie. The crew of a small boat in the middle of an endless sea would find it difficult to sustain a decent livelihood pursuing the occasional pocketful of rye to be found among the common folk. They must, of necessity, seek more concentrated riches: the gold and jewels to be found only in the possession of the most worthy of citizens – the well-to-do. And this, dear friends, will always be most vigorously discouraged.
It has been, perhaps even more than his fear of hanging, his English sense of propriety that has led many an errant mariner to forego his evil ways and retire to the luxurious life of the landed gentleman, and, on an estate purchased with his ill-gotten riches and with the full blessing of his peers among the gentry, to legally, morally, and, above all, most courteously pick the pockets of the local peasantry.
The Bugis, being a savage and untutored race, have no such sense of decency. Not only did they remain unrepentant of their monstrous crimes, they seemed to take some perverted pride in the enterprise, and they encouraged their children to continue in the shameful family practice of piracy. It is certainly no wonder then, that in good English and American homes, it is the Bogeyman – and not the Scotsman – that parents invoke in order to inspire respect and piety in our offspring.
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But Einar had no knowledge of such arcane subjects as English moralism and Indonesian buccaneers. He feared the Bogeyman as any child would fear such a being vested with immeasurable powers and utterly devoid of compassion for the problems of little people like him – much as years later and with far more reason he would learn to fear teachers and military superiors.
And so it came as a complete surprise to the child to hear his own voice, hesitant and muffled, yet defiant, “This ain’t your woods. This is our prop-a-dee.”
“Everything in darkness belongs to me,” countered the Bogeyman. “I own these woods. I own the shadows. As long as it’s bright and sunny out, you think that field out there belongs to you, but tonight I’ll have that too. I’ll take everything that’s outside where the lamp light won’t reach. And under the bed, I’ll own that too.”
“Who says you can own it? My dad bought it. It’s our house, and it’s our prop-a-dee.” This disembodied voice was unmistakably his own; yet it operated independently of his control, overruling his sincere desire to melt into the earth on which he lay.
“I own it because no one can take it away from me.”
“My dad can take it away.”
“He can’t take it away because he isn’t here. You’re the only one here, and you aren’t big enough to take it from me.”
“Well, Knute is right over there. He’s big enough to take it away. He’s been to school. And he’s got poop on a stick. He can take anything he wants away from anybody.”
“Knute won’t take it from me because he doesn’t want it. He’s out there in the sunshine where he belongs. He doesn’t care about these woods; only you care. And you’re not big enough.”
Einar was losing this argument in case you haven’t been keeping score. He lay with his face pressed into the dirt to avoid seeing his tormenter. He was a spectator listening to his own voice – which seemed to emanate from five feet over his head – calmly engaged in reasoned debate over the fabled Nine Points of the Law, while he lay cowering in the dirt like the respectful five-year-old he was. He wouldn’t have talked back to Knute, let alone the Bogeyman. And yet it was unmistakably his voice raised in reluctant defiance against this spectral bully.
Although it had never occurred to him that he should have another voice – one he’d never heard before – he wasn’t greatly surprised to learn of it either. The discovery of that other voice didn’t contradict any belief that he held sacred. If people had voices they didn’t usually use, it might simply mean that a person is more than one person after all, and there was certainly nothing surprising in that. Knute was at least two people that he knew of: the well-behaved boy he became in the company of grown-ups, and this poop-wielding avenger who would deny a younger brother the only route of escape from his current torment.
So why shouldn’t Einar be different people too? Why shouldn’t he be, on the one hand, the boy who sometimes pays attention in Sunday School and, on the other, the one who only this morning had tried to pee over the top wire of Sigurd Opsahl’s barbed-wire fence; the one who watched over Erik while his mother made dinner and the one who sucked at his father’s discarded cigarette butts and blew make-believe smoke rings into the air; the one who cowered here in the dirt and the one up over his head arguing with the Bogeyman? He saw nothing strange in that.
“Well, I’m gonna be big someday…” Einar’s other voice hurled the ultimate – the most menacing – threat in his arsenal, “and then you’ll be sorry!”
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From the sunlit field Knute swore splendid vengeance in Einar’s general direction, and the wind blew a mournful melody through the evergreen boughs overhead. Einar waited, expecting a tirade of abuse for his back-talk, but no one disputed his last declaration. Maybe the Bogeyman wasn’t ferocious enough to intimidate his disembodied voice. Maybe he’d found no snappy answer to parry such a clever retort. Maybe he was considering the consequences of offending someone who would, indeed, be big someday.
It was only when the birds resumed singing that Einar realized they had been silent. A red squirrel, loathe to suppressing its eloquence longer, began scolding from the tangled branches of its lofty jurisdiction. But still there was no answer from his fearsome visitor. An errant bumble bee, blown astray on a wayward gust of wind, droned busily past in her futile search along the forest floor for the nectar bearing flora of the open field. Somewhere nearby, a redheaded woodpecker beat a staccato tattoo on an insect-infested tree. But the sounds of nature’s normal business only emphasized the unnatural silence centered in the thicket.
Einar was quite comfortable, thank you, lying there with his face in the dirt; so he was in no great hurry to raise his head and look around. And, although he began to suspect that his guest had taken his leave, he felt fully justified in ignoring his presence – or his absence – which ever applied. Good manners didn’t dictate that he be especially gracious to someone who either would leave without saying goodbye or wouldn’t respond to a perfectly friendly remark.
“I’m gonna be big someday,” he repeated less loudly and in his usual voice this time, “and then you’ll be sorry.”
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Life – during our passage from that first slap on the behind at birth, through the humiliation of adolescence and the discomforts and disappointments of maturity, to that final one-way Cadillac ride – will not suffer the dictates of a constant velocity. Time pursues its course in fits and starts, oblivious to the wants and needs of mortal intercourse. In seemingly deliberate recalcitrance, it hurtles quickly past life’s more cheerful moments, and it interminably prolongs the unpleasantness with which one is so frequently afflicted. The older one grows, and the more precious his remaining days, the more rapidly they desert him.
But the impatient hours of a five-year-old are frozen in amber.
And so the decades rolled forever by. Civilizations rose and lingered in the limelight, then crumbled and decayed. Glaciers carved new valleys and, retreating, spawned great river systems. The collision of tectonic plates thrust virgin mountain ranges high into the stratosphere, and the wind and rain wore them flat again. And, eventually, Einar sat up, rubbed his eyes and looked around.
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He was alone. His loathsome visitor, unaccustomed to defeat, had quit the Field of Honor. Even Knute had ceased his taunting and strutting, and had retired, weapon unbloodied. For the first time Einar enjoyed the luxury of a leisurely surveillance of his asylum.
He found himself in a grove of immature spruce and balsam trees. The peripheral boughs hung thick and low to the ground, screening him from searching eyes, yet not obscuring his vision of the world without. Though invisible to anyone in the field, he would have been able to see Knute, had he not given up by then and gone home. Beyond the sheltering branches of his grove, the hazel brush grew thick and intertwined, and it grasped at and held intruders. But no brush grew in the green and violet shadows at the center of his thicket, and the trees were bare of lower branches, permitting ease of movement without stooping or stumbling.
Magic governed this grove. The still air was rich with the perfume of balsam fir, an aroma that, for Einar, would ever after engender an aura of security – sweet sanctuary amid life’s turmoil. Einar felt thoroughly self-possessed in this enchanted refuge so deep in the woods that Knute would never find it – where even the Bogeyman was powerless to harm him. No fairytale potentate ever possessed so wondrous a kingdom. Nor had any dominion ever enjoyed so worthy a king.
Woodpeckers provided a drum roll to announce the ascension of a new monarch to the throne of his woodland kingdom, as King Einar sat back in his twilight realm and took census of his sundry subjects. A pair of chipmunks observed a curious protocol from the trunk of a fallen tree. A snowshoe hare, unseen but for an occasional flash of white tail, bounded away in a long looping course though the hazel brush and cottonwoods, and then shyly wound its way back, all the while keeping a wary eye on its newly-crowned sovereign. Butterflies and yellow jackets executed intricate aerial salutes in the humid evening air while ticks and crickets and woodland beetles paid more pedestrian homage. From deep in the forest, a solitary partridge drummed its resonant applause, and the red squirrel, though not without vociferous misgiving, relinquished its erstwhile interest and assumed a perch of more modest elevation.
Wearing his new responsibilities like royal robes, King Einar set out to explore his throne room, calmly and deliberately studying each tree trunk and low-hanging branch. At length, he approached the largest balsam tree and contemplated the blistered purple-grey bark. He poked at a large glutted blister, and when his nail pierced the soft bark, the sweet-smelling pitch oozed out and flowed down his finger.
Balsam bark, once seen, will not leave a boy alone; it must be prodded and picked at. The blisters, like overripe pustules, beg to be violated. Even tired old grown-ups, knowing full well that the pitch will weld their fingers fast together, and that soap and water will avail no relief, are yet compelled to pop the blisters with their thumbnails and allow the pitch to flow out onto their hands. And then whatever they happen to touch – leaf, grass, insect, or baby bird – sticks to them and becomes as much a part of them as their own noses. Later, of course, they will regret having popped balsam blisters. But then they will do it again at the next opportunity.
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By the time the sun began to set – by the time his mother had grown hoarse calling him, and Knute had repeatedly denied having seen him, Einar had managed to completely cover himself with pitch and moss and dirt and twigs. And by the time his clothing had been peeled off and thrown away – by the time water had been lugged from the well and he had been scoured with brown lye soap until his whole body smarted, it was well past his bedtime.
Going to bed without supper didn’t detract from his satisfaction; he was more tired than hungry anyway. He had endured a very busy day. He had escaped Knute’s terrible vengeance, and he had outwitted the Bogeyman. He had discovered an enchanted woodland. And he had declared himself king of his own private dominion, where he had ruled wisely and justly, and he had become beloved by his subjects.
Few five-year-olds could claim such achievements.
And when, in belated answer to his mother’s call, he had crossed beyond the frontiers of his kingdom, he was no less a king. When the King of Spain visits another country he remains a monarch. He brings along his chauffeur, his barber, and his cook. All the perquisites of his office attend him wherever he goes. Foreign dignitaries call him Your Highness and escort him to the head of the line. They know he’s a king, and they treat him like one. But, more importantly, he knows himself he is a king. Distance cannot diminish his dominion.
The lamp had been blown out and King Einar lay in the dark between his two brothers. The mattress stuck to him; so did the blankets and pillow. Knute stuck to him on one side, and Erik on the other. Wherever skin met skin he stuck to himself. And yet a satisfied smile played at the corners of his mouth, and, with the sweet scent of balsam following even into his dreams, he surrendered to warm and welcome sleep.
From its dark refuge in a shadowed thicket, night emerged from a long day’s sleep to advance across the meadows and clearings, wrapping its raven mantle around each object it encountered along the meandering pathways through the fields and yards. But as it approached Einar’s house it wrapped less tightly and less darkly, and, out of deference to the young king sleeping there within, trod more lightly and hastened on its way.

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Against the Yellow, Painted Arrow

a story by

Ken Schroeder

There has been rain, torrential at times, in Extremadura, and we have been holed up in Zafra, waiting. Today the rain has lightened up, and as we have stayed with our hosts for a few more days than expected, it is time to move on. Olivia and I trudge out of Zafra with our ponchos on over our backpacks, and at the edge of the city, at the train station, I am already lost.
We have been following the signs for the Via de la Plata, but in Spain there is only one way to take the Via de la Plata, and that is northward, in the direction of Santiago de Compostela. As we have been walking south, we’ve had to look for the painted yellow arrows that point the way from which we’ve already come. One of these arrows is pointing the way back into Zafra, and seems to be pointing from the direction of the train station, so we walk to the station, and there are no more arrows, and when I finally find someone who is willing to listen to my broken Spanish, and I ask him where the path is, he points the way back into Zafra.
“Well this is great,” I say to myself, but loud enough so that Olivia can hear. “First thing in the morning, in the rain, not even out of Zafra yet, and we’re already going the wrong way. I’d really like to be able to sit down with the people who only marked this path in one direction. ‘You ever think maybe someone might go the other way?’ I’d ask them. I wish they could be in our shoes, you know? They might do a better job of marking this camino if they were the ones walking in the rain with heavy backpacks.”
Olivia listens patiently as I vent– or perhaps it has nothing to do with patience; perhaps she simply tunes me out. In any case, she plods along with me in silence.
We find the last yellow arrow we’d seen, and now we take a muddy path off the road, leading past rubbish bins– the only other road to take besides the one we had come from–  and soon there is another yellow arrow pointing in the direction from which we’ve come, and also the official stone marker with the yellow seashell, and I am satisfied now despite the rain and the 20 minute detour, because we are back on track.
Then the rain stops and it becomes foggy, and as we are walking along the dirt road and into the fog I imagine that this is a reflection of my own mind– I am walking into the unknown, and I am doing it with determination rather than hesitancy. I am unafraid; and I am satisfied by this thought.
“Take a picture of me, Ollie, from behind, with me walking into the fog.”
She sighs, but takes the photo. I often ask her to take a picture of me, with me posing as if I were not posing, and perhaps she sighs because she thinks I am vain, or maybe because the rhythm of our walk is broken by these staged scenes. But the photo captures the spirit of the moment; or at least, as I see it.
At a crossroads there is an arrow spray-painted on a boulder, but it is on our side of the crossroads– it directs those heading north towards Zafra, but is of little help to us, the anti-pilgrims who are walking away from the city in Galicia that holds the relics of Saint James– so we continue straight on, unsure, and only several minutes later is our path confirmed by another yellow arrow. I am happy now, walking in the gravelly mud in the November fog in barren Extremadura, because I am on the right path and the rain has stopped, and I can see that Olivia is also determined and happy.
When our muddy road becomes a swamp, and then a brown, rushing river where there is a low dip in the road, I am still happy despite the challenge we are presented with, or even because of it; our way is blocked by the flooded road, and we will cross this barrier with our determination and our own wits.
And I am happy also at the thought that only a few weeks ago I would have stopped at such an obstacle as this, and returned home to the warm fire in our wood stove. I am happy that today there is no home to return to, no sanctuary but that we can find ahead of us, on the other side of this barrier. I am happy because I am rooted in the present; there is nothing else, and if there is a future it is very near; it is on the other side of the flooded road.
We discover that there is no short cut, no easy way across, and we decide to take our shoes and socks off, and to plunge right in, and we roll up our trousers as far as we can to wade across with our packs.
“You ready Ollie?” I ask.
“Yeah,” she says.
“Right, so I’ll go first. You ready?” I ask again, but maybe I’m asking myself.
Ollie shudders, and I shudder; we’re anticipating the cold water but we’re both smiling. When I wade in, the water is cold and the current surprisingly strong, and my feet sink into the mud at the bottom, and the water is up to my thighs, and I waver a bit, and pause, and stay focused because I don’t want to slip and fall. There are also some large stones that I feel with my feet, and I pause to sidestep them, and the twenty kilos on my back make me feel top heavy and unsteady, but in a minute I rise to the other side.
“Watch out for the stones at the bottom, Olivia, go slowly,” I say, but Olivia is already halfway across, and she doesn’t need to hear my instructions.
Then she is across, and we are both relieved and congratulating ourselves though shuddering from the cold, and we dry our feet with towels and put our shoes back on, and roll down our trousers, which are wet at the bottom, and we keep walking. Better to have challenges like this than the challenge of having to find yellow arrows pointing the wrong way, I’m thinking. It’s simple determination; go forward.
But after walking for another kilometer we find ourselves in the same situation, only now the river that was a rivulet before the rain is higher, and faster.
“Oh, no!” Olivia exclaims, but with a laugh, and I laugh with her, and we go through the same procedure, but this time I nearly fall into the water as it is deeper, and the current faster, and the bottom is very stony and my feet are tender.
“You really have to be careful Olivia, it’s pretty bad here, worse than before,” I tell her, and not so calmly, but I manage to reach the other side without falling, though I nearly fall again trying to get up the slippery bank. When I turn I can see she looks worried because of my own difficulty in getting across; but she crosses the flooded stream easily, and I feel a little embarrassed at my own clumsy crossing.
“You made it look a lot harder than it was,” she says.
We again put our shoes on after drying our feet, and roll down our trousers which are wet to the upper thigh, and march on, having had enough of this for the day, and wondering when we see the next arroyo if we’ll have to do it again.
Before long though, we are in Puebla de Sancho Pérez, and as we enter the puebla, there is the yellow arrow painted on a stone wall to confirm that we are still on our path, and then another on a sign post, and then we are in the town center, on its plaza. There are four or five streets to choose from to continue on our way, and one of those streets will have our arrow painted on the reverse side of another sign post, perhaps; but instead of trying the two or three streets heading south– instead of walking down each of them for a hundred meters to find our arrow by looking behind us, as the arrows are only painted for the true pilgrims heading north to Santiago de Compostela– instead, Olivia asks a woman the way, and she points down the street we’ve just come down, and then Olivia asks another– it is Olivia doing the asking as she speaks better Spanish than I do– but this one also points from where we’ve come. Then she asks at a shop, a bazaar, and the woman there has no idea, and is really not interested in helping us, and I am again feeling angry at the indifference that so many people with comfortable lives have for two pilgrims trying to find their way, and I am angry at the narrow-mindedness of the people who will only help the pilgrims heading north.
In the end we try the streets, and find our yellow arrow, and we leave the puebla and head back into the wet countryside, and I think of Puebla de Sancho Pérez as having been an inhospitable village.
Before long I am again happy though, again heading in the right direction with my daughter, who is filled with the same happiness that comes with the simple physical struggle of hauling our loads.
Late in the day there is another crossroads, and we continue straight on, but after half a kilometer we still haven’t seen our arrow, and I say, “To hell with it, let’s just keep going.”
We come to the highway, and there is our objective, Calzadilla de los Barros, to our right, but we see no way to get there directly, and we decide to cut across the fields. But the fields that look simple to navigate from a distance are always more difficult to do so in reality, and we stumble across the uneven terrain, and have to leap a ditch, and get through a barbed wire fence after throwing our packs over first.
There is a hill on our right, with woods, and I think about camping there for the night, but when I mention it to Ollie, she urges me on into the village where we had already decided to get a warm bed and a hot shower at the pilgrim’s albergue.
Just before dark we trudge into Calzadilla, and we’re looking forward to finding the albergue there, which will be our reward for having slogged through the rain and mud and two flooded streams. As we make our way into the village a car passes us, then slows, and the driver toots the horn. In the passenger seat is one of our hosts from Zafra, a young American woman who teaches there, and she waves, and then her boyfriend, who is driving the car, speeds down the road. Olivia and I laugh; we are both thinking the same thing: that it took them perhaps 20 minutes to travel the 17 kilometers between Zafra and Calzadilla, while it has taken us a full day. They are warm and dry while we are wet and muddy, and they must pity us a little, but I can’t help but feel a little contempt for the ease of their trip, and a little pity in return for the prosaic nature of their journey, while for us, it has been a challenge and an adventure, and these kinds of days will be our routine for a very long time, while theirs will perhaps be days of existential crisis and ennui.
In the center of town there is a monument for pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela, and I see this as a good sign; perhaps the villagers here will be friendlier. To get our six-euro room at the albergue, we have to pick up the key at the town hall, and there is a gathering of people there as it is election time, and people are voting. We have to wait, but Olivia finally gets the key, and informs me that we have another three kilometers to walk to get to the albergue, which is out in the countryside. We are both exasperated by this news as we are ready to quit for the day, but we trudge happily out of the village and up a slope to get to our sleeping place– happily because our beds are waiting for us. But when we reach the albergue the key gets us into the common room, but not into any of the bedrooms.
“Well, at least we’ve got a bathroom and we can have a hot shower, ” I say.
Olivia goes first, but then calls out, “Uh, Dad, bad news…”
“No water.”
“There’s water, but no hot water,” she says.
It is getting dark, and I don’t want to walk another six kilometers to the village and back to get the right key for a bed, and to have someone turn on the hot water– and even if I did, the town hall must be closed by now– so we put our camping mats and sleeping bags on the cold, tiled floor, and we are content enough to have a roof and four walls around us.
As we lie there, we talk about our day, and have a dinner of bread and cheese, and as I am looking at the map planning our route for the next day, there are sounds outside, like footsteps, and a jostling of the locked door leading into the common room.
“Maybe someone’s here from the village to give us our key and hot water,” I say.
But when I go to the door, there is no one, and I lie down again, on my sleeping bag on the floor.
“There was definitely someone there, Dad.”
“Maybe it was the wind,” I say.
A moment later the sounds are there again– someone is trying to get in the door, there can be no doubt– and this time I walk out and have a look all the way around the building, straining my eyes in the dark, but there is no one.
“Must be a ghost,” I say when I’m back inside with Ollie, and she laughs, but she is uneasy.
“Who would be way out here in the countryside trying to get in?” she asks, and I look at the window which reveals nothing but the darkness outside.
As we drift into sleep the unease dissipates, and I think about this being the anniversary of my mother’s death. I had sat beside her a year ago in the hospice in Florida, and I had held her hand and told her that I was there for her when she had fallen into unconsciousness and her breathing had become strained and difficult, and I had felt privileged to be the only one to see her go, and I remembered thinking then that she had seen me come into the world, and I would see her leave the world, and I had felt very close to her at her death, and now perhaps my mother was making her way around the albergue, trying to find a way in– she would have been very curious about this adventure that her son and grand-daughter were making together– yes, it is mom padding about outside the albergue and trying to find a way in– she wants to tell me to keep walking against the yellow arrow, just as she had told me not to follow the crowd when I was a teenager–but she can’t come in as we are in two different dimensions, and I tell her that I love her as I drift into sleep.
The next morning we’re up and in the bathrooms, which only have cold water, and we have a little breakfast of bread and cheese, and we hike back down the road to the town hall in the village. Though it’s chilly, by the time we’re in the village we’re sweating. I explain to the woman at the desk in the town hall about the key not being the right one to get into the bedrooms, and about the cold water shower, as I’m hoping for a discount, and instead she returns the full amount, and we leave Calzadilla feeling that they have a right to have their monument for pilgrims, as it is a hospitable village indeed.
We find our yellow painted arrow with help from a friendly local, and we head south on the country road, plodding along contentedly with our backpacks, and there is only the road, and the painted, yellow arrows pointing the wrong way to guide us.
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The Clock

 a story by

Ramona Scarborough

As a new French timepiece, I had stood proudly on the work bench. My interior workings had been made by a craftsman of the highest order. The marble, slate, and brass embellishment gracing my exterior had been cut, polished, and shaped to perfection. The rounded shape of my timepiece contrasted with the square pendulum housing. Accompanying me was a pair of brass flower holders mounted on matching pedestals. Monsieur La Dou, a near-sighted clockmaker, peering through his thick glasses, had pronounced me, “Magnifique!” You’re already sold. You’re being shipped to a couple in London, England,” he’d said.
Mr. La Dou packed me and my matching vases in wool batting and put us into the dark interior of a wooden crate. “Be especially careful with this box,” I heard Mr. La Dou say to someone. We were carried into a darker place. An engine started up and I felt the crate shaking. The brass vases huddled against me for protection. I worried about damage to my insides on the long ride.
I felt myself being lifted into another conveyance that made excessive noise. Again, we traveled a long way. Upon arriving, I was carried into a building with familiar smells and sounds. Brother and sister clocks chimed “En Francais.” I was reverently unwrapped on another work bench. An unfamiliar clockmaker adjusted and oiled my workings. I felt brand-new. The brass flower holders stood up straight and shining on their pedestals.
Mr. and Mrs. Claigh were our new owners, a quiet, retired couple who often looked up and smiled when the pleasant tinkle of the chimes sounded in the cavernous great room. The wide mantel where the flower holders and I resided was oak, ornately carved with leaves and berries. Occasionally, the Claigh’s would host a dinner party and they would point with pride to us, their stately acquisitions. Their grandchildren were a trial, loud and boisterous, covering my melodious marking of the hours, but they only came on holidays. Thirty-three years rolled over us, content, admired, and frequently dusted by maids.
One day, there was a commotion after breakfast; Mr. Claigh was hauled away, never to be seen again. Mrs. Claigh took to her bed. Now my bell-like tones echoed in the silence and bounced back from the high ceiling. Then Mrs. Claigh disappeared one night. Their son came a week later, speculatively touching objects in the room, including me, leaving smudgy fingerprints on the glass in front of my pendulum.
A few days later, some workmen came and loaded up practically everything in the house. This time there was no soft covering for me and my “daughters” as I now thought of the flower holders. We were jostled around with fireplace tools and silver candlesticks. We and the other occupants were unceremoniously dumped onto a dock.
A man came out from a door, wringing his hands and screaming. “You idiots, these are valuable. I will call your superiors.”
The first worker just shrugged. “Go ahead. They don’t pay us nearly enough money anyway.”
“Get out of here,” the large man with a mustache said, brandishing a poker he’d picked up.
It was obvious the man had an appreciation for high quality. He examined each piece for an extended time, nodding vigorously when he spotted us. However, we were taken to a dark back room and covered with cloth.
We waited there for a long time. My gears and springs wound down for the first time in my life. My hands stood still at half past midnight. I was humiliated not to be announcing the correct time. Our brass tarnished. The marble dulled.
Finally, the cloth was lifted, the light so bright, it flashed onto my glass face. We were dusted and polished. Happily, I was wound, and again kept time to the minute. We were carried to the platform of a hall filled with empty seats. People began to file in.
When the hall was filled, Mr. Mustache mounted the platform and began speaking so rapidly, the numbers fairly flew from his mouth. People in the audience raised paddles, up, down, up, down. Finally, a bellow, “Going, once, going twice, sold to the gentleman in the blue cravat or the lady with the flowered hat.” So it went, on and on. I was surprised to be lifted onto a table, facing the crowd.
“This handsome French Devillers drumhead mantle clock with matching flower pillars is signed by Mr. La Dou, the famous clock maker of Saint Nicola d’Aliermont. The garniture of slate and marble came from the Dinant region of France. It has a mercury pendulum and easy-to-read numbers. I’ll start the bidding at one hundred dollars.’
Only one hundred dollars? Why even by myself, I’m worth at least five hundred.
A paddle flashed up in the hand of man with unruly hair, mutton chop whiskers, and a wide belly straining against his vest.
If he doesn’t take care of himself, he likely won’t take care of me and my girls. I hope we don’t have to go home with him. Perhaps the elegant lady with the feathered hat will outbid him.
Alas, it was not to be. The rumpled man continued to bid and the lady stopped raising her paddle. Mr. Mustache banged down his gavel. “Sold! to Mr. Barnard Cox for three hundred dollars.”
The house we were taken to was as large as the one belonging to Mr. and Mrs. Claigh, but the contrast between the two homes could not have been greater. Animal heads with beady eyes stared down on us from every wall—rather intimidating. The rug was made of zebra skin. A gun cabinet filled with weapons of all sizes stood guard on one side of the massive stone fireplace. On the other side was a steel wine rack with shelves below for more potent brews. We perched timidly on the mantel above and, for a great many more years than I wish to remember, were witnesses to debate, debauchery, and dereliction.
Once, a drunken guest leaned up against the fireplace and told another equally inebriated man, “Barnard Cox is new money. I hear he got rich by blackmailing people and then he invested in the railroad. Doesn’t have a bit of class or good taste.”
In 1929, when the stock market crashed, so did Barnard Cox. He lost most of the money he hadn’t squandered yet. His liver refused to put up with any more drinking and stopped functioning. The house was locked up and stood empty for years. Again, I was silent as dust and cobwebs settled over us.
We were rediscovered the day workmen were brought in to restore the electric lights and do some much needed repairs. A realtor, Mr. Achen, and an antique dealer, Mr. Sloan, walked around writing notes on respective tablets.
Mr. Sloan brushed the spider’s masterpiece away from my face. ‘Well, now here’s something I’d be interested in.”
We were moved that day. We sat among other worthy objects d’art in Mr. Sloan’s warehouse. Mr. Sloan himself came the next morning, blew away the dust, and cleaned us with meticulous care. Then I was sent to a nearby watchmaker to be serviced. The watchmaker exclaimed, “Oh, what a marvelous clock! Are you going to keep it?”
“No, no, I’ve already found a buyer in the United States—San Francisco to be exact. The clock and its matching pedestals will be shipped out next week.”
Though we were carefully packed for the ocean voyage, the rolling and pitching of the ship concerned me. I feared my fragile mechanisms would suffer harm…. However, on arriving at Lady Cafferty’s home, I was wound by the butler and I chimed in joy and relief. Lady Cafferty made my girls useful and beautiful by placing red roses in their holders to match the bouquet on the dining table. Important citizens came and went and were served tea. Here, in this home overlooking the Bay, we were in our element. We wanted to stay there forever.
Our forever with Lady Cafferty turned out to be twenty-seven years long. In 1962, after a long illness, she passed away. Her niece, Isabella Norton, inherited us.
Right in front of us, she told her husband, James, “Oh, no, let’s get rid of this old clock. I only want modern furnishings for our home. I’ll sell it to an antiques dealer.”
Why, I wasn’t old. I was only eighty-two.
However, when we were taken to Gold Crown Antiques, I changed my mind. I found out being older makes you more valuable to collectors. Unfortunately, the owner of Gold Crown, Remy Pike, was greedy. He bought us for a ridiculously low price and then tried to sell us for four times that amount.
At first, we were displayed in the window. When we didn’t sell there, he put us on a table near the front door. As time went on, we kept being put farther back into the shop. Finally, we resided in a corner with a jukebox that nearly blocked us from view.
We were discovered by a beginning antiques collector, Fletcher McNeil. He was ecstatic over his find and wasn’t experienced enough to realize he was paying an exorbitant price. He took us to his home in Oregon where he had begun furnishing his mansion with priceless objects. His enthusiasm made us think we had landed in another clock and pillar paradise. We hadn’t met his wife Vivian yet.
Vivian hated us on sight. We were a chore to dust I’ll admit, but she had no appreciation for our beauty. After a while though, we weren’t even as highly esteemed by Fletcher. He kept acquiring antiques, clocks in particular.
His mansion became too small. Twelve rooms bulged with possessions. Tiffany lamps shone on Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century paintings. Mementos of his past travels crowded his den. On the hour, my delicate, musical tones were drowned out by discordant notes, bongs, and a chorus of cuckoos.
If an unsuspecting neighbor showed up at his door, Fletcher would drag him inside to show off his domain. He never failed to regale his captive about the origin, vintage, and price of each item. By the time he had finished being a tour guide, the poor soul had wasted his entire afternoon.
As Fletcher grew older, he was obliged to hire Ben Miller, a handyman and chauffeur. He never hired a housekeeper. He didn’t want some clumsy person breaking his valuables. Vivian made a career out of dusting, vacuuming the Persian rugs, and washing hundreds of cut glass chandelier crystals.
I heard her complain constantly. “You’ve just got to get rid of some this junk.”
“Junk? Junk?” Fletcher’s face turned red. “How dare you call this junk? Someone who appreciated fine things would never say that!”
“They wouldn’t seem so fine if you had to use a Q-tip to get dust out of tiny crevices. Why, I counted the clocks in this house last week. There’s over a hundred. Some of them are really heavy to move. Put some of them in the basement if you can’t part with them.”
Fletcher didn’t relegate us to the basement right away, but Vivian kept nagging. Over a period of time, the basement became an accumulation station for less expensive items. One day, Fletcher had Ben come downstairs and rearrange us and other pieces to make room for more.
“Mr. McNeil,” Ben said. “This clock is just beautiful.”
“Ah yes, the French Devillier, the first of my clock collection.”
“Why is it hiding down here?” Ben took out his pocket handkerchief and attempted to swipe off some of the dust.
“If you had a clock like this, what would you do with it?” Fletcher asked.
“Why, I’d put it on top of my entertainment center and show it to everyone.”
Finally, someone who valued us.
“Ben, Vivian’s always hated this clock. Why don’t you take it home and enjoy it?”
“Really? Isn’t it worth a lot of money?”
“The last time I had it evaluated, it was worth over a thousand dollars. I’d like to give it to someone who appreciates it.”
“Well, thank you, sir. I’ll take really good care of it.”
“I’m sure you will.”
Ben wrapped us like a treasure in soft towels and gently set us on the front seat of his pick-up. He chuckled as he started up the engine. “Ellie will sure be surprised.”
He lugged us into his house, a real disappointment. Ben lived in a dinky trailer in a senior mobile home court. Oh well, this was better than languishing in the basement of a Fletcher’s house.
Ben called to his wife. “Hey, Ellie, come look.” He whisked the towel off, “Ta-dah!
“What is this monstrosity?” Ellie crossed her arms over her apron.”
“You don’t like it? Mr. McNeil gave it to me. It’s very valuable.”
“Is he giving it to you in lieu of wages?”
“No, it’s a gift.”
“This ugly clock doesn’t match anything in our house. Where in the heck will we put it? There’s hardly any room in our trailer for what we have.”
I felt the mercury rising in my pendulum.
“We’ll put it on top of the entertainment center.”
“Where are you planning to put my plants? The knick-knacks are from my mother.”
“I guess we’ll have to distribute them around on the shelves we have.”
Ellie stomped into the kitchen to prepare dinner. She slammed cupboard doors and banged a soup pot onto the stove.
After a few months though, she softened up. I think she was just mad at us to begin with because nobody consulted her and Ben assumed her stuff wasn’t important. Now, she even bought some artificial carnations for my flower girls. Ben and Ellie Miller have lots of company, friends, relatives… and every Tuesday, Ellie’s fiction writers group. All the visitors say we are magnificent.
After Ben leaves in the mornings for his handyman jobs, Ellie disappears into the tiny computer room and writes stories for an hour or two. She sings while she prepares meals. They don’t argue a lot like the Fletchers. I guess she’s not so bad, just not very cultivated.
Last night, she looked up at me and said to Ben, “If this clock could talk, I bet it would have some great stories to tell. I think I’ll start writing about him.”
We have no idea how long we’ll stay here or where we’ll go next, but she’s right. We will always have stories to tell.

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NEXT ISSUE OF

BEORH QUARTERLY

OUT ON HALLOWEEN!

Summer 2014

all content copyright 2014
gif public domain

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Let’s do it again, will we?
Welcome to yet another issue of Beorh Quarterly!
Beth J. Whiting wows us with ‘The Playground,’ another of her abrupt and beautiful takes on the strange existence many of us, for convenience, like to call ‘America.’
Then Noel Armstrong gives us terror as only two boys could experience it–and as only a student of the ‘other’ Speculative Fiction could write it.
Annie Blake then wows us with her prose poem ‘The Tenacity of Sin.’ This one gets right to the heart of the matter, maybe especially when people ask ‘What’s the matter?’
Need more fresh perspective? Thought so. Give ‘The Bundle’ by Hall Jameson a whirl…
and if you still need more inspiration, take ‘One Day at the Anthill’ by Jon Beight for a spin. You won’t be sorry, because, after all, these are the best stories out there!
Scáth Beorh,
Acquisitions 
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The Playground

a story by

Beth J. Whiting

 

Alison and Martin had been friends for ten years now.  Martin remembered that, at seven, they had been enemies.  He had been a bully, and taunted her.  Something changed, though, to make them friends.  His memory was kind of fuzzy on that point. Since Alison was his best friend, it made sense that he would tell her first about what he discovered in the playground. He took Alison there himself to show her. She was skeptical. “Why are you taking me to our elementary school playground?”
He had to admit it was kind of weird. Only, he had been babysitting his sister when it happened.  He found a time portal. “It’s kind of by the veranda.”
The playground was huge.  Most of it was land.  There was a playground with swings and slides in the middle, with a sandbox.  It was a sunny Saturday afternoon. Alison laughed when she saw Martin feeling in the air for a portal.
“Come on! This is stupid.” Then Alison saw Martin disappear, and then jump back.
“See.”
Alison was suspicious.  “What is it then?”
“It’s a time portal for going in the past.”
Her face turned gray.  She seemed disturbed. “Let’s not do that.  I think we should let the past be the past.”
“Nonsense.  The thing about it is that you don’t choose what time that you go to.  It’s strange.  I saw you and me and we were in junior high together.” He laughed. “Like I would like to relive those days.”
“I don’t want to do it.”
Martin grabbed at Alison’s hand. “Come on don’t be such a chicken.”
Alison let him suck her into the portal.  Soon they weren’t in the playground anymore. They were in a house.  Only they were invisible to the people in the room.  It was Alison’s house.  There was Alison, ten years old.  She looked pinker in the face, but still the same.  She had rosy cheeks.  Her blonde hair was put in braids, and she wore a pretty white dress.  It was a special occasion.  It was her tenth birthday.  Martin was there as well.  Although he looked like a shrimp compared to now.  He was shorter than her.  He had the same black hair and dark eyebrows. Other children were gathered around the table as Alison blew out her cake.
Martin said, “See this is a good memory.  I don’t see why you are so afraid.”
“For every good memory, there’s a bad one to replace it.”
“That’s not true.  I think we have more good memories in this life than bad.” But then that was Martin.  He was always more optimistic than Alison. “Come on, Alison. Let’s try one more.”
“I have things to do today,” she said, nervous.
“Fine. But we have to come back here.”
Martin wouldn’t let it go.  For a week he talked of the portal and nothing else. “It’s interesting, but the portal won’t let you go to another time period.  Like, say I wanted to go to the 1800’s and invent the computer and become a millionaire.  I can’t do that.  For some reason, the portal only connects to your own lifetime.  It only explores your memories.  It’s kind of disappointing if you ask me.  Just yesterday I had to see my five year old self fall off a bike.”
This constant talk was enough to make Alison snap and say yes, she would go to the portal again. So they went to the portal.  Only Martin was the one who turned out to be disappointed. The portal sent them to the first grade.
He saw Alison walking alone.  She was less attractive than she was now.  She didn’t take showers often then, and the dirt on her showed. She wore some mismatched clothes. His friends and he came from behind her and threw her books down. They laughed. Alison looked sad and had to bend down and get her books.
When they came back, Martin justified himself. “Yeah, I was a real jerk back then in the first grade.  We both know that.  What? Does the portal want to punish me?”
“The portal might choose random memories.  I told you this was a bad idea.  We should not mess with this portal.  The past in meant to be left in the past.”
Martin may have seemed depressed by the last episode, but he was real antsy to go to the portal the next week. Alison reluctantly went with him. It sent them to the first grade again.
Martin had a slip of paper in his hand.  He knew this memory right away.  The other day the kids had a poll in the class to see who the three prettiest girls were.  Well, now he had gotten the class to do a poll of the ugliest girls.  Alison was on top of the list. Once the poll was announced, Alison cried.  The teacher got upset and threatened detention to the person who made this poll to begin with.  The kids ratted on Martin.
Martin thought that the portal would close this memory now, but it didn’t.  It focused on Alison.  She got up and took her backpack.  She left the classroom.  The teacher tried to stop her, but Alison was too upset to be stopped. She began to walk home.  It was a long way. The whole time, she looked agitated, wiping her eyes.  Her face was red.  Finally, Alison stopped at her white suburban house.  Then she went inside and started looking through the kitchen.  She went through the cupboards in a messy way and found a box of matches. She went across the street to Martin’s blue house.  She found the door unlocked.  She threw a lighted match onto their carpet.  Then she ran back across the street and went inside her own house.  She called the police.  Then she watched from her lawn as the fire rose up in Martin’s house. The portal ended then.
Martin looked at Alison with anger. That was what that started that friendship – that incident.  She had been the one who called about his house being on fire. He thought she was brave. Finding that she was the one who started it changed things.
Martin yelled. “Someone could have burned in there!”
“But no one did.  I was a bit of a criminal when I was a kid.  It wasn’t until I began making friends that it stopped.”
“That doesn’t excuse your behavior!”
“We’ve been friends for ten years.  Can’t you let this go?”
“You burned my house down!”  Martin was boiling red.
“But I promise you that I didn’t do anything more after that.”
“How can I know that?”
“You’ve been my best friend for years.  Can’t you trust me?  You can’t just let ten years slip like that.”
“That’s why I’m going to the portal alone to find out what you’ve done these past ten years.”
“Don’t you trust me?”
“No.”
+

Loafer Hollow

a story by

Noel Armstrong

 

I’d smelled this before. When I was a child I took the magnifying glass from my father’s desk and held it over a dead rat in the field behind our woodpile. I focused the sun to a white-hot pinpoint on the rat’s belly and breathed in the single line of smoke rising from its burning fur. The smoke bit sharply into my nostrils and flooded my eyes with tears. I dropped the glass and backed away choking and coughing.
But it was different now, after Jonah. This time I let the smoke engulf me, nearly overwhelm me. It filled my eyes and mouth, flooded my lungs, entered the pores of my filthy skin and seeped in through my matted hair. Still I did not back away from this fire. I watched it as flames burned dried skin to airy cinders that floated up with the breeze. I watched it as muscle and sinew were scorched to charcoal. I tell you I did not back from this fire until I saw bones split open and the marrow inside boil and spit.
+
            I remember the summer afternoon when Pepper wandered into my yard. Gordon Shute and I were playing army, facing off with broom handle guns from ten feet apart and blasting each other a million times dead. As we started to argue about who was hit Pepper, Gordon’s German shepherd, wandered out from the alfalfa field by the lawn. The way she moved made us lower our weapons and stare.    
            “She looks goofy,” I said. “Look at her smile.”
            “She’s not goofy, Spence,” Gordon said. “She’s panting. She’s hot.”
            “She’s wobbly,” I said. “And her smile is goofy. Something’s wrong with her.”
            “Pepper?” Gordon called to her. “What’s wrong, girl?”
            Pepper took a few more steps and collapsed. As she lay there panting we saw that the skin of her left side was torn down in a rectangular flap, showing her ribs and muscle like a hanging beef.
            “Spencer? Gordon? What’s wrong with Pepper?” my dad asked. We hadn’t seen him come from behind us. Gordon dropped his stick gun and I hid mine behind my back.
            “She’s all torn up,” Gordon said. “Look at her—she’s dying!”
            My dad went to Pepper with soothing sounds and checked her wound. “Gordon,” he said in the same soothing voice, “run and get your dad. Tell him to bring the station wagon.”
            Pepper was almost still, but her breathing was shallow and quick like the effort was costing her. When Gordon’s dad came with the station wagon she allowed the men to move her to a blanket and lift her in with only a few whines of protest.
            But once Pepper was in the back of the wagon and Gordon’s dad tried to move a corner of the blanket from her wound something happened. Pepper began to cry out with sounds that made my hair hurt. I had to plug my ears against her yipping screams as she snapped at the blanket and fought weakly to get to her feet.
            “What’s happening?” Gordon asked.
            “I don’t know!” Gordon’s dad shouted trying to keep her from jumping from the wagon.
            “Leave the blanket,” said my dad. “It’s sticking to her like it’s glued.”
            “Gordon, get in,” said Gordon’s dad, slamming the wagon’s tailgate. “Let’s just get her to the vet.”
            I watched as they drove down the dirt road, Gordon’s face pale, his father trying to drive with one hand while trying to reach back and calm Pepper with the other, and Pepper’s cries echoing from inside the wagon.
            My dad and I watched them for a few seconds until the car turned out of sight. “What happened to her?” I asked.  “What was that?”
            “Got me,” my dad said as he wiped his hands on his shirt. “She got into it with something, it’s anyone’s guess what.”  He was right. Pepper was the alpha dog of the area, a ninety pound shepherd with no rivals, domestic or wild. She had ranged unleashed and unchallenged through the hills and mountains season after season, sometimes being gone for days at a time.
            “Me neither,” I said. “Pepper can eat anything.”
            “Maybe so, Spence,” my dad said with a hint of a smile. “But there are things. A mountain lion with cubs. A bear. She’d have a hell of a time with a bear.”
            “You told me there were none. Not around here.”
            My dad shrugged. “That’s what I can’t figure.”
            “Not in a hundred years, you said.”
            “I did, didn’t I? Ah, well, it’ll be nothing exciting,” said my dad. “She probably got hung up in a barbed-wire fence or thought she could push around one of Hal Shuler’s bulls.”
            I thought he must be right. It would turn out to be something boring. It always did. Only later did I realize that the whole time we talked he was staring at the woods two thousand feet up the face of Mt. Loafer.
+
            We lived in an unincorporated town called Salem Hills on the high desert bench of Mt. Loafer. It was a town full of dry, prickly things: stinging nettles, blow snakes, and the descendants of Mormon pioneers. We called it a town and gave it a name, but it was really just a few scattered houses connected by rutted roads and bad plumbing. We ran out of water so often that I can remember feeling lucky when I turned on the faucet and something besides mud and air came out. 
            Over the years my own dogs had come home from the hills with porcupine quills in their muzzles, skunk spray in their fur, cactus needles in their paws, or what we called “ear seeds” that made them cry out every time you touched their heads. But they had never been torn up like Pepper, and they were runts, little dogs that didn’t let any beating change their opinions of their high status.  
            I went to Gordon’s house later to see what happened at the vet’s.  I kept thinking about the way Pepper had been crying as they drove away. I was sick with surety that Pepper had died or been put to sleep, but I was wrong on both counts. The Shute’s station wagon pulled into their driveway two hours after it left. Pepper, shaved, sutured, and coned, slept in the back.
            “What happened, Gordon?” I asked. “What happened to her?”
            Gordon shrugged and looked at his dad. Mr. Shute said, “Something got at her. You two give me a hand.”  Together we lifted Pepper from the back of the car and lowered her to a mat in the garage. It was a clumsy move, but she didn’t even stir. When I left she was still sleeping soundly.
            Three days later Pepper was trotting around Salem Hills, cone off, and her shaved fur was the only evidence that anything had even happened to her. I pestered my dad with questions and theories until I wore him out, but after a few days of ‘don’t knows’ and ‘maybe so’s,’ I gave up talking to him about it. Gordon and I, though, talked about almost nothing else.
+
            “Where are you going?” I asked my dad. It was a week after Pepper had been injured. I found him in the garage filling a canteen, wearing a backpack and a wide-brimmed hat.
            “Hiking,” he said firmly.
            “You’re going hiking?”  My dad liked to look at the mountains, liked to drive his truck to camp sites and light a fire. But he had never, to my knowledge, simply walked around on a mountain for the pleasure of it. He was as likely to delve into the poetry of Rumi or listen to a David Bowie album as he was to go hiking.
            “Yes, hiking,” he said. “Mr. Shute and I are going to go exploring, have an outing.”  He closed the canteen, said, “And no, you can’t come. Someone needs to change the water on the rows.”
            “But…”
            “No buts,” he snapped. “No buts.”
+
            Gordon and I met in my yard as soon as our dads left.
            “They took Pepper,” Gordon said. “And my dad took his guns.”
            “Guns? They took guns?”  I paced back and forth, looking up at the face of Mt. Loafer. “Where are they going? Did your dad tell you?”
            “Wouldn’t tell me,” he said. He waited for a few seconds then added, “But I figured it out.”
            “You did? How? Where?”
            “I heard my mom talking to him,” Gordon said. “My dad said Pepper was well enough to go to the hollow. My mom was upset. She said he was being reckless. Guess what my dad said?”
            “What?” I asked, rolling my hand in a hurry up gesture.
            “He told her,” Gordon said, “that it was reckless not to go. He said they had to do something, because anything that could do that to Pepper was dangerous.”
            “Dangerous?” It’s a sacred word to a boy, and I said it with reverence.
            “Dangerous.”
            My brain felt hot. I couldn’t keep still. What could drag my dad up the side of a mountain? Why the secrecy, the talk of danger? And the guns? Gordon and I couldn’t believe we were being left out. We were sure it was the only time in our lives anything ever had happened or ever would happen.
            “They’re hunting,” I said. “They’re taking Pepper so she can track whatever it is that ripped her open. Then they’ll shoot it. And it’s not Hal Shuler’s bull and not some barbed-wire fence.”
            “Yep,” said Gordon. “And you know what else? They’re nervous.”
            “What should we do?” I asked. But I didn’t have to. Ten minutes later we went for provisions. We filled two canteens. I handed Gordon our small camp ax and I shouldered a training bow and a quiver of three arrows.
            “We can catch them easy,” said Gordon. “They’re old.”
+
            Elation. We were not only stalking our fathers, which alone would have made for a good day’s work, we were stalking whatever they were stalking. It was like we were some kind of secret double-agent hunting spies.
            “Is this the way they went?” I asked Gordon. We had been walking for only a few minutes, but the dirt was hard and I couldn’t see any sign of our dads.
            “Oh yeah,” he said. “This is it for sure.”
            We walked for what seemed like a long time, up the face of Mt. Loafer, following a path that got steeper with every step. Old or not, our dads were proving harder to catch than Gordon said. We were breathing hard, my thighs were burning, and sweat was prickling in my hairline. I hit my canteen again and again, taking sips and then gulps. After the twentieth drink it was empty. A drip of water, too small to get my lips wet, was all that came out.
            “Hold up,” I said. “My canteen’s out.”  I held it upside down and shook it.
            Gordon unscrewed his lid and took a tiny sip. “You should do it like that,” he said. “I have a gallon left in mine.”
            Nothing was less helpful than that advice. “Let’s just rest a minute,” I said.
            I sat on a stump and shed my pack. Somewhere along our hike the scrub oaks and sage brush had yielded to stouter pines and maples. The dry, brown dirt of Salem Hills was now a darker loam. In the trees above us a jay squawked as it crowded a pair of yellow warblers off a limb.
            Gordon saw where I was looking and shook his head. “I hate those birds,” he said.
            “Which birds?”  I asked.
            “Just all of them,” he said. I looked over at him and he shrugged. “They give me the creeps. I saw a magpie picking at a dead cat on the road. I could see pieces of the cat in its beak.”
            “That’s sick.”
            “Yeah, it had to lift its beak to get the pieces down its throat.”
            “I’ll never eat a cat again,” I said.
            Gordon eyed me. “They’d eat you just the same as that dead cat—if they could.”
            “Well, they can’t,” I said, but the thought was a little unsettling. “I like them anyway, even the magpies. My dad says they’re smart. If you cut their tongues in half they’ll speak English.”
            “My dad says they’re flying maggots,” Gordon said.
            I could see this wasn’t getting us anywhere. My breath was back. “We should get going,” I said. “Are you ready?” 
            I hefted my pack and began walking before Gordon had a chance to answer. He scrambled to his feet and fell in step beside me. Soon we were deep in the trees, and the shade made the climb easier.  It became easier still when the trail leveled out, and then we were descending a short rise into a grassy clearing.
            “We made it,” Gordon said. “Loafer Hollow.”
            “How do you know?” I asked. “You’ve never been here.”
            “Look around,” he said. “Where else could we be?”
            “I don’t know,” I said. “Anywhere.” But from what I’d heard I thought Gordon was right. The clearing stretched out for a hundred yards in all directions. It was a nearly flat meadow of tall, thick-bladed grass bordered by firs and quaking aspens. The grass was damp, and the air smelled like wet worms and pine sap.
            “Which way do we go?” Gordon asked. The trail divided into three separate paths from where we stood.
            I shrugged. “We’ll find our dads’ tracks and follow them. They couldn’t get through here without making tracks.”
            “I’ll start this way,” Gordon said. He went to the left, searching the ground as he walked.
            I turned right and did the same, scanning the trail and grass as I made my way to the tree line. I found a set of cloven, crescent-shaped imprints and said, “Deer.”
            Gordon was several yards away. “What?” he asked.
            “Deer,” I said louder. “Tracks from a deer.”
            “Who cares about a deer?”
            “I don’t,” I said. “And it’s more than you found.”
            “Yeah, nothing here,” he said.
            We came back to where we’d started our search. “One trail left,” I said. Gordon didn’t say anything. He was staring to the edge of the hollow. “What?” I asked him. “What’re you looking at?”
            He looked down at the ground like there was something troubling him.
            “What’re you thinking?” I asked. “You’re acting weird.”
            “What if we don’t find our dads?” asked Gordon. “What if we find the thing that ripped up Pepper first? Or what if it finds us?”
            Gordon’s words were like a doorknob rattling in an empty house. A drop of sweat ran down my neck and I slapped at it like it was a hornet. “Jeeze, Gordon,” I said.
            “Well, you thought about it. You had to. Nothing could do that to Pepper.” He was right, but he shouldn’t have said it. Some things you don’t say. My mother taught me that you give the Devil power if you even mention his name, and Gordon had done just that. It was an unwritten rule in Salem Hills—maybe in all of Utah—that if you bring up a problem you become the problem, and problems lower the value of your common stock. That rule extended to everything from family conflicts to doubts about the historicity of talking donkeys, towers built to Heaven, or snakes that herded cattle across the ancient Americas.
            Gordon turned around and looked back the way we came. “What should we do, Spence?”
            “We should find our dads,” I said.
            “You don’t want to go back?” he asked. “Back home?”
            “No way,” I said, raising the bow. “We’ll be all right.”
            Gordon looked from my bow to his camp ax. He bounced it in his hand a little, ran a thumb along its edge, then sized up my bow. He did not look reassured. “I guess,” he said. “Let’s go.”
            We followed the path across the clearing and up a hill to a forest. I’m sure it was a beautiful place, full of aspens and maples, flowers and butterflies, but it wasn’t beautiful to us. The sun looked like a pat of cold butter far behind the trees. The birds sounded put upon. Even the trees even seemed to lean in like they resented our intrusion. Gordon and I had lost our strut, and it wasn’t because we were tired.  Everything was different.
            “Why did you have to go and scare us like that?” I asked.
            Gordon knew exactly what I meant. “Who’s scared?” he asked. “Are you scared?”
            “No,” I said. “No thanks to you and your talk.”
            “Good,” he said. “Neither am I.”
            We walked into the forest, sullen and deflated, leaving Loafer Hollow behind. I regretted making us go on. I wanted to turn around. But I wasn’t about to admit it.
            “Watch out,” Gordon said. I had walked right into his back.
            “Why’d you stop?” I asked. “What are you looking at?”
            “Here, we’ve been walking all over them.”  He pointed to an indentation in the soil, flat, wide, and poorly defined.
            “Big deal,” I said, wishing I’d seen it first. “That could be anything.”
            “Could be,” he said. “But it isn’t. Look back there and look up here. They’re footprints.”
            He was right. Prints, all about the same size and shape, wandering on and off the trail. They were unmistakable. On some we could see five toes.
            “They’re human,” he said. “Or pretty close.”
            I put my shoe into one of the footprints. “Look how big they are,” Gordon said.
            I nocked an arrow in the bow. “Now we’re getting somewhere.”
            “What do we do?” asked Gordon.
            “I’ll cover our tail,” I said, since I’d heard it in a movie. “You take the front.”  I turned around and readied the bow. Gordon raised the camp ax to port arms. Gordon and I walked back-to-back as he followed the footprints and I swept the bow back and forth across the trees behind us, looking for any signs of movement.
            “Do you have to crunch every stick as loud as you can?” Gordon hissed at me over his shoulder.
            “I’m walking backwards!” I said. “And your breathing sounds like an air raid siren.”
            “Well I have allergies,” he said. “You could step anywhere you want.”
            “Okay, okay,” I said. I turned to Gordon and said, “Shhh!
            When I turned back I saw something move in the trees twenty feet away. My breathing stopped. It was huge, with white fur and bulging eyes. Eyes that were watching us.
            I drew the bow and loosed an arrow before I could think. As the arrow spun off into the trees, Gordon looked back, screeched, and ran for his life, throwing the ax in the dirt.
            I might have shot another arrow, but what was the use? Compared to the thing behind us my bow felt like a toy, and my arrows seemed like matchsticks tipped with gum wrappers. All ballast. I threw the bow in the dirt a few feet from Gordon’s hatchet and ran after him.
            We flew from the creature. I didn’t dare to look back to see if it was following. My nerves knew it was; knew that claws were about to rip up my heel cords and teeth were inches from my spine. I had only one goal: Pass Gordon!  I had to get Gordon between the white thing and me. It’s not something I’m proud of, but Gordon wasn’t helping me pass him, either.
            “Oohh Lord!” A voice cried from behind us. “I’m shot!”
            Then I knew. My brain caught up with my nerves and I knew. It hadn’t been a monster in the trees, it had been a man. And from the sound of the racket he was raising, my arrow had hit him.
            “Help me oh Lord!” He was wailing loud enough to wake the dead. “Aaaahhh!
            “Gordon,” I gasped. “It’s a man!  I shot a man!”
            Gordon didn’t slow. He shouted “Good!” and kept on running.
            “Wait!” I said. “We have to help him!”  But Gordon was having none of it. He didn’t turn back and didn’t waste his breath answering me.
            The man started howling like an arched cat. It was unbearable to hear. My mind flashed with gruesome images: the man pinned to a tree by my arrow like a mounted beetle; the man with my arrow protruding from each side of his neck like Frankenstein’s bolts; the man reaching deep into his opened gut to try and pull the bloody shaft of my arrow out.
            I slowed, came to a stop. I had to do something. But what could I do? I was terrified of the man and terrified of what I’d done. I stayed low and crept back toward him. I spotted him, lying on the ground in a fetal ball. He didn’t see me. Yet. I couldn’t stand to hear him suffer, but I wouldn’t even think about going to help him. I could only think of one thing to do. I walked back a few steps and shouted, “Gordon.”  I listened. No answer. “Gordon!”
            “Hey you kid!”  I turned back to see that the man was no longer writhing on the ground. He was glaring at me. As I stared back he pushed to his feet and came for me. “You! Stop!”
            He marched toward me like a soldier on drill. I wouldn’t believe I could literally be frozen by terror if I hadn’t experienced it at that moment. Not only couldn’t I move, I couldn’t think.
            He held my arrow up and shouted, “Stay your course, Loo-see-fur!”  He was a bizarre man, shirtless and barefoot, clothed only in a pair of ragged Levis and a sheepskin that he draped on his shoulders like a cape. The huge eyes I had seen in the trees were a pair of thick-rimmed glasses with coke-bottle lenses.
            He stopped in front of me, leaned into my face. “Ha!” he said. “You failed again!”  His breath was rotting teeth and tonsil nuggets. He pointed to a small bruise on his stomach. No bloody hole, no slippery guts, just a little dark spot on the skin. He broke the arrow on his thigh and tossed it into the dirt.
            I found my voice, said, “I didn’t mean to hurt…”
            “Lies! You’re the child of Leviathan!”
            “No, sir! Gordon’s dog was hurt…” I said. “Something hurt Pepper….”
            “Dog?” he asked. His eyes darted around. “Where’s a dog?”
            “Pepper’s not here. She’s Gordon’s dog,” I said. I knew I was rambling, but the words just came out. “She was torn up.”
            “Shhhhh!”  Spit flew from between his teeth. He grabbed the back of my head in one hand and clamped his other hand over my mouth and nose. “He’s here, eyes on us, somewhere.” His fingers were damp and smelled like pit sweat. I tried to pull away but he pressed harder, pressed until it hurt. “Looking for a torn dog?” he asked. “Leviathan has a pile of them.”
            I couldn’t get enough air. My chest heaved with the effort. I tried to scream, tried to push his hands away, tried to punch his arms and chest. My blows felt as weak against him as birds fluttering against a wall.
            At last he pushed me away. I fell to the ground gasping.
            “You know the pile,” he said. He wiped the hand that had covered my mouth on his sheepskin. “You know Leviathan.”
            “No sir,” I said. “I don’t know any of that.”
            “You know!” he said. He moved close, loomed over me, tapped a finger on his temple, “Jonah the Lamb discerns you. Every damned last one of you.”
            “No,” I said. I crab-crawled back, trying to open enough space to stand and run.
            “The light of truth,” Jonah the Lamb said, “confounds the darkness.”  He snatched up the broken arrow, pointed the tip at me as I backed away.
            “I’ve chased Leviathan across the Earth,” he said, “Chased his servants!”  He bent down and grabbed my ankle. 
            “Stop it—let go of me!” I shouted. “Gordon! Help me!” I tried to jerk free, but his grip felt like an iron manacle.
            Jonah raised the arrow to the sky and studied it for a few seconds. I kicked and twisted until I thought my knee would fail but it was no use. The manacle just got tighter. Jonah began to lower the arrow.
            Then total confusion followed. Jonah’s sheepskin seemed to fly from his shoulders. He buckled forward. The arrow fell from his hand. I jerked free of his grip. Jonah cursed and put a hand to his shoulder and blood seeped from between the fingers. He looked around frantically and saw Pepper. Pepper!  She had Jonah’s sheepskin in her mouth. She sharked it back and forth, worried it to dandelion fluff.
            “Come on!” Gordon yelled. He was behind me, dragging me to my feet. “Run!”
            “Where’d you come…?”
            “Jeeze!” Gordon yelled, tugging me along. “Let’s go!”
            Pepper dropped the skin and went for Jonah. He screamed and kicked to ward her off but she was too quick. She dodged, lunged and snapped, retreated and growled. She positioned herself between Jonah and us, nipped his feet and backed him up, not letting him turn to the right or left. Jonah cursed and flailed at her with his good arm.
            I was starting to fade. Jonah, Pepper, Gordon, all of it had moved far into the distance. I could see Jonah’s mouth shouting, could see Gordon yelling something at me, but their words sounded like they came from the bottom of a mine.
            “What’s wrong with you?” Gordon was right in my face. He pulled me forward and I followed, holding his arm until my head began to clear. It took several seconds, but I began to steady.
            “I’m okay, I can run,” I said to Gordon, and we did. I followed Gordon, watching only his back and the branches that whipped my face and neck. A narrow game trail out of the woods, a grassy slope by the side of a ridge, into more trees.
            When Pepper caught up to us we slowed to a walk. My legs were shaking. My eyes stung with the threat of tears.
            “What a creep,” Gordon said. “Is he the one? Did he hurt Pepper?”
            “I don’t know.” I said. “I hate his guts.”  Tears came then, and I turned from Gordon to wipe them.
            Gordon pretended not to notice.  We walked in silence as the trail we were on grew fainter and faded away entirely.
            “Where are we going?” Gordon asked.
            “I thought you knew.” I said. “You were in front.”
            “So what?”
            “Then let’s follow Pepper,” I said.
            “She doesn’t know anything,” Gordon said.
            “Well it has to be downhill,” I said. “We’ll just go downhill.”
            We walked a little further and came to the top of a ravine. Gordon and I looked back and forth at it and each other. I didn’t want to think about turning back. I wanted a hundred miles between Jonah the Lamb and me.
            “We can follow this,” I said.
            “No one will see us if we walk along the bottom,” Gordon said, and we started into the ravine. But we felt it right away. Something was wrong. Pepper wouldn’t follow us.
            Gordon tugged my arm. “You hear that?” he asked.
            I did. A high-pitched buzzing noise. It was faint, but getting louder.
            “What is it?” I asked. Gordon didn’t answer. He couldn’t hear me. The buzzing became intense, like impact wrenches going off in my head.  It hurt my ears and I covered them with my hands. I saw Gordon do the same, but it wasn’t helping. The sound seemed to get in through our mouths, our nostrils, the pores in our skin.
            I don’t trust my memories of what happened after that. The sound is overwhelming. A million needles stab into my eardrums. Gordon hits his temple with the heel of his hand. He whips his head back and forth like a wildebeest trying to shake out a botfly. Spit flies from his mouth. He loses balance, tips, and rolls to the bottom of the ravine. I try to reach out to him but my body follows my hand and I’m falling end over end after him.
            Pepper is howling at the top of the hill but I can’t hear her. I lie on my back next to Gordon. The ground spins, the sky pulses like a frightened heart. The noise!  It thrums in my teeth, in the long bones of my thighs.
            A tree looms over me. Its cinnamon bark is arranged in huge plates. It’s impossible—the tree is too big to be here. It towers above the sides of the ravine. Insects swarm around its trunk. Fat, bloated flies with blunt heads. Birds flutter in broken patterns above its branches. I try to stand, but lurch to the side and land on Gordon. His eyes are rolled back and twitching with vertigo. One of the birds careens into the tree and sticks to it like a gnat on flypaper. I try to right myself, to push myself to my feet but the whole world is unhinged and the noise is omnipotent. I see the wing of the stuck bird flapping weakly then going still.
            Jonah the Lamb is on the steep hill at the far side of the ravine, throwing dirt with his hands and feet as he scrambles away from the tree. He’s frantic with motion, but as directionless as a whirling fish.  One of the tree’s limbs falls on the bare skin of his back and pins him to the hill. Jonah flails madly to get out from under the limb but its weight carries him back into the ravine. Flies swarm in a loose cloud to where he is pinned, then coalesce into a solid mass and descend on him. It is like an explosion in reverse. And as quickly as it began, the buzzing sound fades and is gone.
            I feel queasy. I crawl to Gordon. His eyes find their focus. From under the flies Jonah is screaming. Limbs from the tree fall over him, popping like logs in a bonfire. Gordon and I push to our feet, leaning on each other for support. We hobble away from the tree, fall, and rise again.
            A sound of groaning timber, like a great ship being broken on rocks, fills the ravine. Jonah lets out two or three choking screams and is silent. The buzzing noise starts again. Gordon and I flee down the ravine in a stumbling, stiff-kneed lope. I break into a full run, careening blindly down the mountain. I can’t escape the echoes of Jonah’s shrieking agony.
            How long I run, the route I take, how many times I crash to the ground and scramble to my feet again, or where Gordon is during my flight I don’t know.  I am next aware of him leaning against the wall of my house, sobbing, as I lay collapsed on the ground in the same patch of grass that Pepper had fallen into two weeks earlier, certain I can still hear screams just below the level of hearing coming from a forest on the far side of Loafer Hollow. My father is carrying me and my mother is sobbing and I cover my ears and I shout that Pepper won’t stop yipping and Jonah won’t stop screaming and the flies won’t stop buzzing and that Leviathan’s eyes are on us.
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            I am cloistered in my room for days. I tell my parents what happened twice. Both times they look concerned. Not frightened, concerned. My mother starts to cry and my dad speaks to me in the same maddeningly soothing tones he spoke to Pepper in. I want to talk to Gordon but I’m told he is visiting his grandmother in Panguitch. He’s a little shaken up by the whole thing, my dad tells me. We’re all a little shaken up by what happened, he says. But I can hear in his words that he doesn’t understand.
            But I understand. I catch glimpses of a wing fluttering at the periphery of my vision that vanishes when I turn toward it. I hear the noise of breaking timber and cover my ears reflexively. In my dreams clouds of thrumming flies coalesce over animals, people, over my father and mother. I understand and I wait.
            Two days, three days, a week. I show interest in my food. I make small talk, help with cleaning. Then a Sunday morning comes and my parents ask how I feel about going to church. Not yet. But I’ll be fine if you go. Am I sure? Oh yes I’m sure.
            When they are gone I fill two canteens, one with water and the other with gas. I dig a book of matches from the coffee can in the shed. I follow the trail up the mountain, across the hollow, along a single track.
            The ravine is still there. It is at peace. But I understand. I empty the gasoline in a tangle of dry grass in the far downhill end. I light the match and watch flames spread from the grass to the weeds and willows, then catch in the trees. The fire gets hotter as small trees are fully engulfed. There is no sign of the flies, no sound of buzzing, no cinnamon plates of bark on a great trunk. But I understand that, too.
            As the fire spreads I climb out of the ravine and stand at the side, watching. My eyes sting, I cough and cover my mouth with my shirt. I’m lightheaded and drop to the ground in a patch of dirt to get out of the smoke. I pull myself to the edge of the chasm and stare down into it. Fire is consuming the small bushes, the grass and weeds. I wipe my eyes to see shapes revealed as the underbrush is cleared. The skull of a cow, deer antlers, a collection of bones. The fire burns away more. A skeleton of something smaller with sinew still clinging. My face is hot and my eyes burn, but I look deeper into the ravine than I’ve ever looked before. The weeds are gone, the grass is gone, the trees are gone. Even the dirt has burned away so I can see it. Beneath all is the mound. Half-decayed flesh loosely bound to bone. Hair, skin, faces of animals, the face of Jonah frozen in perma-scream, still twitching as the fire comes close. The mound starts to whistle like a teakettle as the fire takes hold. I roll to my back as the fire lights in the branches of the trees next to me like the heads of great matches.
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Noel Armstrong lives in the Colorado mountains with his wife, kids, and a land porpoise named Max.
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The Tenacity of Sin

a prose poem by

Annie Blake

 

You drink my gold and silver. My cry tears through the winter wood staining crimson, the sapling and then the ancient tree; spilling brighter and thicker against the waning moon. But it is you who drinks my gold and silver and robs the night of its shining stars! With every passing hour, I hear that cry break louder. The jingling coins make you keen and the rum and gaieties froth on your highest shelf. My nocturnal eye feverishly opens, drinking pain through the sweaty walls and I hear your footfall—leaden, through the grimy hallways. The curse of your flashing eye and pale heart kindles the fiery, hot storm and withers the field before the seed can dance.
Dark remembrances master the ray and I find myself a traveller against the open winds. The inky, treacherous waves arch their backs and crush me to pieces. Sleep will not let me sail and the flowers do not smile or play. How can my soul weep under the shadow of the great demon? Your hand soaks in sin. It is washed and dried until threadbare, frayed and tattered.
I never knew your accessory would throw a heavy cloak to the moon and snuff out my stars. Her sepulchred sob strangles my wife and children. The composure in her laugh abrades me. Her impassiveness is practised and her diverting eye—a craft refined.
But the claw-like hands of mercy—oh how she swoops! Her entwining, lithe feather  embraces my wedding finger. Her swift wing dissolves the cloud. A great war divides me from my forebears. I air out my heart and make room in my soul. She implants in me human eyes and I hear the groan of our young ones when they sing and frolic with the haunted ghouls.
Dampen the burning glare and pacify my untied emotions. Keep the door and windows barred, for your seething throat shall swallow my gold and silver no more! Mercy—oh how she flies and throws her spell! I, a phantom-bird, soar through the bars to brush the fire moon—gold and bright! And cloud—to breathe out its silvery, sheer ribbons upon the wood.
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Annie Blake is a former teacher who resides in the west of Melbourne, Australia with her husband and five children.  She is passionate about writing and enjoys period literature and films – her favourite texts being of the original Gothic Horror genre.  Other interests include music, surfing, and research in psychology and sociology.

 

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The Bundle

a story by

Hall Jameson

 

I fell asleep midafternoon while resting in the crook of an ancient deciduous tree, the kind that grew along the edges of streams, a cottonwood, or Russian olive. In the dream that followed, an enormous beast chased me along a narrow wooded path as roots and vines reached for my bare ankles, trying to trip me up. When he was almost upon me, a sound woke me: a branch snapping, or a trout jumping. I opened my eyes and the sun flashed as it rounded the steeples of high pines that surrounded the thicket.
The light shimmered in jewel tones: royal blue, emerald, and gold. Within the network of leaves and branches, dozens of perfect spider webs floated, dew-flecked, illuminated by the early morning sun. I shifted and discovered that I was bound in a milk-and-peppermint-scented wrap. I twisted and tried to stretch my arms, but could not free myself.
Shapes wavered at the edge of my vision and I willed myself to wake up, because surely I was still dreaming. I screwed my eyes shut and clenched my jaw, but when I opened my eyes, my circumstances had not changed. I squirmed, but found the more I panicked, the tighter my shroud felt.
Strands of silk covered my head like a hood, but I could swivel my neck. Above me, beyond the line of clear sight, a dark thing waited, part of its shadow covering me. It twitched, and I wriggled in my restraints. I felt the fibers tear and almost cried out, but the thing above me jerked again and I froze. When it grew still, I began again, and this time the silk ripped open at my chest. I strained my arms, pushing up and out, the fabric tearing at my throat and falling away. Freed, I clung to the branch, delighted to discover that I had wings, though crumpled and soggy against my back. I strained and they popped apart, perfect white edged in black, resembling stained glass when the sun found them. I marveled at their velvety texture, amazed they belonged to me.
There was movement at the top of my branch and I look up expecting to see a spider, but instead found another creature like me. It slowly opened and closed its black and white wings. I echoed its movements.
Gaining strength with each pump of my new wings, I took to the air. I flew over the marsh, the spider webs, the shivering leaves of my deciduous tree, and saw something odd: A human form, face up in the marsh, unmoving, wrapped in something heavy. She was familiar, this woman half-submerged in the murk, her body wrapped tightly in a rug, the white skin around her throat ringed with purple bruises. Above her head, spider webs stretched across the branches, the leggy tenants visible, mandibles trembling as they decided what to do with this unexpected gift.
Another figure, a man, walked away, a strand of frayed rope in his hands. He disappeared in the woods. I would have followed if not for the darkness, it reminded me too much of my dream from the night before.
I floated back over the body and landed on the carpet, following the braid of the rug. A memory flickered.
            The rug from my living room. The one in front of the fireplace.
I crawled up onto the dead woman’s chin.
            This was me. What I was before.
My thoughts evaporated as the sun rose in the morning sky, my senses consumed by the scent of lavender and lilac.
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One Day at the Anthill

a story by

Jon Beight

 

“It’s a beautiful warm day out today,” said Joey’s mother, as she shut off the television. “Go outside and play. The sun will do you good.”
Preferring the air conditioned house to the unrelenting heat of outdoors, eight year old Joey protested, but lost. He put on his shoes, grabbed his magnifying glass, and went into the backyard to look at the anthill, which sat in the dry grass and brush near the far corner of the yard.
The late morning sun shone bright on the ants and their little ant world, as they went about living their little ant lives, as only ants can live it.
Joey walked up to the anthill and paused. He tilted his head back to face the sun and squinted. It was hot on his face.
What Joey didn’t notice was that his shadow had come to rest on the anthill. The ants noticed the shadow on their little ant world, as only ants can notice, but continued to do all the things that ants normally do, because shadows are not an uncommon thing.
As Joey went to his hands and knees, the sun was once again shined on the anthill. Joey used his magnifying glass to watch the ants up close. Being the toiling creatures that they are, the ants continued to work and paid little attention to him.
Joey soon tired of observing ants at work, and the dried grass and brush that surrounded the anthill captured his attention. He drew back the glass to focus the light on a few of the dried stalks of grass, and with a wisp of smoke the beam of light cut through the stalks and left glowing red stumps. He moved the magnifying glass up and down and back and forth as he cut a fiery swath through the grass.
The ants began to notice the changes in their little world as a second sun came in and out of view. This was not normal, and the commotion made the ants stir from nervousness, as only ants can stir.
They scurried to make sense of these unusual occurrences around and above them. They moved in all directions, bumping their antennae into the antennae of other ants as they exchanged information, until all the ants knew what all the other ants knew. Then, once they all understood, the ants calmed down and went back to going about their business as only ants know how.
But Joey wasn’t happy simply letting ants go about their business. He decided that ants must pay a price for being ants. As Joey began to focus the light on the world the ants had built for themselves, their warning systems and danger sensors caused their frenzied activity to begin anew.
The light from the new sun cut a path back and forth across the anthill, indiscriminately passing across the little bodies of hapless ants. Some were hit directly and became tiny cremated specks amidst the minute rubble. Others were only partially burned, the seared ends of their bodies vanishing in the flash of light. Searching for an answer, the antennae of the wounded ants swung wildly back and forth as their remaining legs struggled to escape the pain and terror. Other ants, being ants, were not capable of helping them in any way. They could only sense the screams of agony when their antennae touched. Since Joey had no antennae, the ants did not know that Joey laughed.
Hysteria threatened to overtake the ants, but their survival instincts soon gained the upper hand and they headed for the safety of their underground sanctuary. They left their dead and dying behind, and mourned their losses as only ants can mourn.
With the holocaust playing out and holding firm on Joey’s interest, he noticed too late that the surrounding dried grass and brush had caught fire, and he was trapped in the middle of it. Panicky, Joey tried to stamp the fire out, but the flames were too large for one small boy to extinguish. Realizing he was in trouble, he screamed for his mother, but she was inside their home and couldn’t hear him.
The flames grew, the heat intensified, and the smoke was thick. For Joey, there was no escape. Were it not for a moments glance out the window, Joey’s mother would never have seen the smoke. Running toward her son, she saw his clothing in flames as his arms flailed. She fought through the smoke and fire and pulled Joey to safety.
The ants stopped doing the things that ants do, and watched as the firemen put out the fire. They watched as the inquisitive neighbors stood and gawked. They watched as the medical team loaded Joey and his mother into the ambulance. But since the firemen, the inquisitive, gawking neighbors, and the medical team had no antennae, none of them could hear the ants laugh, as only ants can laugh.

Spring 2014

copyright 2014

 

It is Spring again along the solar year for the Northern Hemisphere, and here in Florida that means that we still have cold nights but beautiful, sunny, cool days–and these will remain so through April… at least. Yet, around the world springtime behaves in different ways. February in much of the world is frozen. In Ireland, it is lambing season, yet the last snows can still fall in April. In Los Angeles, February is cold–but the deserts are safe to wander through at this time of year. Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire? Frozen solid. And Australia, where live a few friends of mine? The ending of Summer.

 

In ‘Devils and Dolgens’ we enter the world of three boys, two of which are not sure about their mutual friend… and neither should we be! Surety about anything is always a slippery slope.

 

‘The Adventures of Rabbit’ follows, an Indian legend retold by returning author Ed Ahern. If you don’t see yourself in this tale somewhere, your possession of a belly button may be questioned.

 

We are then graced with a visit from the ‘Queen of May.’ Frederick Hilary brings us this fresh commentary on one of our age-old themes. Really worth the read!

 

Now, the theory of the multiverse is a new one–at least empirically–so you are invited to enjoy the quaint (and quirky) “Aunty Merkel” by British writer Deborah Walker.

 

A Joyous Spring!

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Please enjoy this issue of Beorh Quarterly.

 

Gratefully Yours,

Scath Beorh, Acquisitions

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Devils and Dolgens

a story by

Phil Richardson

 

The firelight created a cocoon of warmth and safety in the dark meadow. The smoke drifted upwards, but the smell of the pinecones the boys had been throwing on the coals pervaded the area. Gary, Tommy, and Mark sat as close to the fire as possible, because the cool summer night made its light as comforting as its warmth. Mark had been telling ghost stories, and they even scared him. Although Tommy and Gary felt grown up at twelve, somehow Mark was always able to scare them. His voice seemed to get much deeper when he was telling a story and his bright, blue eyes changed as they reflected the light. He had black hair that gave him a sinister look, but it was his voice that caused little prickles of fear.
Mark leaned forward as he came to the end of his story. “The family was found sitting around the kitchen table. Their plates were full of food, but none had been eaten. They were all dead and there wasn’t a mark on them. To this day, no one knows how they died. I think it was dolgens that got ‘em.”
“Jesus!” Tommy said as he looked over his shoulder. “Maybe we shouldn’t tell any more stories. I don’t think I’m going to sleep tonight.”
“Good,” Mark said. “You can keep the fire going. As long as we have a fire, the dolgens can’t snatch us out of our sleeping bags. Dolgens love to find people asleep in the woods without a campfire. They crawl over their mouths and smother them, and then,” he paused for effect, “they eat them.”
Gary reached over as if to shut Mark’s mouth. “Enough already. You are the weirdest guy. Do you read anything but comic books and ghost stories?”
“Oh, I don’t read that stuff at all. See, I have these dreams—sometimes I almost think they really happen. I sold my soul to the Devil in one of them. That was spooky!”
“Jesus!” Tommy liked the word because his mother never let him use it. “I’d hate to have those things going around in my head.”
Gary threw another log on the fire. The pungent odor of burning pine tar filled the air around them. “Sometimes I worry about you, Mark. If you didn’t know so many scary stories and love to camp out, I  don’t think I’d hang out with you.”
Tommy scooted closer to the fire, spit into it, and seemed satisfied with the sound of the sizzling on the hot coals. “Devils and dolgens, devils and dolgens! Jesus! I know I’m not going to sleep tonight. It’s bad enough worrying about the war and how maybe the Nazis might invade us. I dream about that a lot. I just wish this war was over and things could be the way they were.”
Mark smiled at Tommy and said, “I could cast a spell so you can sleep—if you want me to, that is.”
“Spell? What do you know about spells? You are definitely weird.”
“It’s not so hard to cast spells.” Mark moved his hands in a circle. “I can show you if you want.”
“No thanks!” Tommy and Gary scooted away from Mark and curled up in their blankets.
In the middle of the night, Tommy woke up to a guttural mumbling and then something that made his hair stand on end—a growl. He went cold and almost wet his pants. Then he realized the sounds came from Mark who, asleep, stared at him with lips drawn back and eyes wide with the fire mirrored in them.
“Stop it!”
This woke Gary up, and he reached over and pushed Mark. “Quit it! Wake up and quit it!”
Mark shook his head and jerked. “What’s happening? Why’d you guys wake me up?”
“You were asleep. Well, you must have had a nightmare,” Tommy said as pulled his blanket around him. “You were growling and you looked like you were going to bite somebody.”
“Probably just another one of my Devil dreams.” Mark turned away and curled up in his blanket. “I’m going back to sleep. Try not to wake me again.”
“Try not to wake you? Jesus!” Tommy spit into the fire. “You quit growling and stuff and we’ll let you sleep until noon.”
Eventually, they were all fast asleep, but their dreams were troubled.
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Several weeks later, after school started, there was an incident in the gym involving all of them. The football coach, Mr. Marone, got mad at Mark because he refused to take a shower. Mark’s hadn’t done anything but sit on the sidelines because he was afraid he would break his glasses, so he said, “I’m not sweaty.”
Coach had a rule—everybody in gym class had to take a shower, and he never gave in. Finally, he got a group of guys to throw Mark into the shower, clothes and all. Tommy and Gary tried to save their friend, but they were shouted down, and Coach made the three of them run twenty laps around the basketball court, “So you’ll be sweaty.” Mark was visibly angered and protested the punishment, but finally ran his laps. Tommy and Gary were not happy either. After finishing their run, they sat around and planned.
“Let’s sneak into the gym and let the air out of all the basketballs,” Tommy said. “Coach will bust a gasket!”
Gary suggested putting ink in the shower heads. “Think about it.” He waved his arms and danced around. “All those naked guys covered in blue ink!”
Mark didn’t want his friends to do anything. “I have my own plan. I’m going to cast a spell on Coach. I’m going to make him wet his pants every time the class bell rings.”
“You can’t do spells,” said Gary. “Spells are for witches and wizards and you’re just a kid. You just say things like that to try to scare us.”
Mark smiled in such a way that Tommy and Gary felt goose bumps. “We’ll see,” he said. “We’ll see.”
Coach left school early the next day and no one knew why. Mr. Theron, the chemistry teacher, substituted for him in gym class, but since he didn’t know anything about what they did in gym, it turned into one big recess with no showers afterward.
“Wonder where Coach is?” Gary asked.
“I heard he’s not coming back.” Tommy was always first with the rumors.
“He won’t be coming back. Not to this school or any school where there’s a class bell,” Mark said. “Not unless he wears diapers.”
“Jesus!” Tommy put his hand to his mouth like a girl. “You don’t mean you really put a spell on him?”
The smile that crossed Mark’s face left them wondering.
“Don’t listen to him,” Gary said to Tommy. “He’s just trying to spook you. He can’t do spells and he sure ain’t no wizard… are you, Mark?”
“Let’s just say Coach gets to wet his pants every time the bell rings. Let’s say he found out it’s not a good idea to cross me.” Mark stood up. “Remember, guys. It’s not a good idea to cross me.”
Tommy and Gary waited until he was out of sight.
“Do you suppose he’s telling the truth? Do you suppose Coach really was cursed with peeing at the sound of the bell?” Tommy looked scared.
“Nah,” Gary replied, “I bet there’s a perfectly good explanation.” He didn’t look convinced, however. He pushed Tommy and then punched him in the arm. “Besides, even if he is a wizard, he’s our wizard.”
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Two more strange things occurred at school. The first happened when Mrs. Prior told Mark’s study hall that everybody had detention for a week because some of them were too noisy. Mark objected, “It’s not fair! You know it’s not fair. You can’t do this.”
“Oh yes I can, young man. You’ll be in that detention room with the rest of them and, if you keep talking back, you’ll be there longer. Just because your dad owns a store doesn’t mean you’ll get special treatment.”
Mark knew when to shut up, but he complained to Tommy and Gary. They were sympathetic, but relieved they hadn’t been in the study hall themselves.
“What are you going to do, Mark? Are you going to cast a spell on her too?” Gary said this with a smile. “You fixed Coach didn’t you? Fix her too. Maybe have her hair fall out.”
“Jesus Criminy!” (Tommy had expanded his vocabulary). “Mark, you wouldn’t do anything, I mean, couldn’t do anything. Besides, she’s not so bad.”
“You don’t care ‘cause you don’t have detention,” Mark said. “No, if I cast a spell, it wouldn’t be as simple as the one on Coach. Let’s just wait and see. How about we all go hiking in the woods after school? There’s some things I need to find. Special things.”
“What? Lizards, mushrooms, bat wings?” Gary was laughing until Mark gave him one of his penetrating stares. “Okay, sure, we’ll go with you. Right, Tommy?”
“I… I guess. Where we gonna meet?”
“Beecher Wood,” Mark replied. “It’s real dark there and lots of interesting things grow—or live there.
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The guys met after school in the parking lot and hiked down to Beecher Wood. Mark took the lead, and they roamed through the woods while he looked for certain weeds and roots.
“It’s starting to get dark,” Tommy said. “I think we should head home.”
“Fraidy cat!” Gary made a gruesome face. “Think the demons’ll get you?”
“I’m not scared, I’m just careful.” Tommy looked around—nervous. “Anybody who knows a wizard like Mark should be careful.”
Mark looked amused. He had gathered a small bag full of weeds and mushrooms, which were “for biology class,” so he said it was time to go home. They all trudged back through the woods, Tommy making sure he wasn’t the last in line. “Are you really some kind of wizard?”
“What do you think? Do you suppose a kid like me could make a deal with the Devil? You think I’d sell my soul, even though I don’t believe in souls? And, if I did, do you suppose I’d still be going to school and sitting in a boring study hall with a dumb teacher like Mrs. Prior?”
After that, they walked home in silence.
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A week later, Mrs. Prior had a substitute. No one knew, or would tell, why she wasn’t in school. Like Coach Marone, it was a mystery.
“Maybe it’s a contagious disease,” Mary Johnson said to Gary as they waited for the bus. “Two teachers out sick and nobody knows why. We could all come down with something serious. That’s what my mom thinks.”
“Oh, it’s something serious,” Gary said with a superior tone. “Some of us know what’s wrong with them, and I can’t say why, but I can tell you it’s not a good idea to get on the wrong side of our friend Mark.”
It wasn’t long before rumors started flying around the school. “Mark poisoned them,” or “Mark put dog poop in their food.” Other kids started shunning Mark in the halls and scooting their chairs away from him in the classroom.
Mark confronted Gary after school. “Why did you start this, Gary?” Mark’s face turned bright red. “Mary Johnson said you told her I did all this stuff.”
“Well, didn’t you say you cast a spell on them?”
“That was just a joke! I’m no more a wizard than you are.”
“Well, whatever you say, there’s something strange going on.”
Mark walked away in disgust, not even bothering to say hello to Tommy, who he almost ran into.
“Hey Gary, what’s wrong with Mark?” Tommy asked. “He looks really mad. I wouldn’t want him to get mad at me.”
“Well, he’s mad at me, I guess.”
“Jesus Criminy! I wonder what he’s going to do to you?”
Gary paled. “I don’t believe that garbage. He told me he he’s not a wizard. I believe him—I think.”
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Two days later, Gary didn’t come to school. Tommy was beside himself. He wanted to ask Mark if he was responsible, but he was afraid to. He tried to visit Gary, but he wasn’t allowed in the house. “Might be contagious,” Gary’s mother said.
Two weeks passed before Gary came back to school. He found Tommy. “We’ve got to do something,” he said. “I almost died I was so sick. I shouldn’t have made Mark mad, but he didn’t need to take it out on me! I’m going to read up on witches and wizards. We’ve got to do something about all this!”
The next day Gary went to the library and checked out as many books as he could find on witchcraft. The librarian, Mr. Temple, frowned as he saw the kind of books Gary was interested in, but Gary said it was for a paper he was writing. He and Tommy pored over the books. Some of them were just too complicated to understand, but there was one thing that kept coming up—a wizard soon became the pawn of the Devil, and if you were to save his mortal soul, you had to kill him.
“Jesus! Couldn’t we just perform an exorcism or something?” Tommy’s eyes darted from side to side. “We can’t kill him! We’d be murderers. Besides, he’s our friend.”
“We’re not killing him, Tommy. We’re saving his soul.”
They talked and talked. Tommy finally agreed with Gary when he told him he might be next on Mark’s list. “My dad’s got a pistol,” Gary said. “We can get Mark to go with us out in the woods again… and then we’ll shoot him.”
“What if he’s immune to bullets? We’d just make him mad and then, Jesus Criminy we’d be in trouble!
Gary hadn’t thought about this. He decided to read some more about witchcraft, and discovered that in the old days they tied witches up and threw them in the pond. If they came to the top, they were witches. If they drowned, then they weren’t. Tommy wasn’t sure about this. But it seemed like the only way they could prove Mark wasn’t a witch would be to kill him.
“He’s a witch all right,” said Gary. “If you were as sick as I was, you’d know it had to be a witch who done it to you.”
“How are we going to tie him up?”
“We’ll tell him we’re playing a game. Whoever gets himself loose first wins. You’ll go first, but I won’t tie you up too tight.”
“Well,” said Tommy, “it might work. I guess I could help.”
Gary began the plan by telling Mark it was time for another outing. “This time let’s go out to Beecher Pond. We’ll build a fire and you can tell ghost stories.”
Mark liked the idea. The next evening they all trekked out to the pond. They soon had a roaring campfire.
“The evenings are starting to get kind of cool,” Mark said as he held out his hands to the fire. “Pretty soon it’ll be too cold to do this.”
“Yeah,” Tommy said, looking nervously at Gary. “It’s too cold right now to go swimming.”
Gary shook his head and gave Tommy a dirty look. “I know what, let’s play a game. I got some rope in my knapsack, and I know a good game.”
“A rope?” Mark pretended he had a noose around his neck. “Are we going to see who can hang from a tree the longest?”
This was a little too close to the truth, and Gary was spooked. “Nope, we’re… we’re gonna to tie up each person and see how long it takes him to get out of the ropes. Tommy, you can go first.”
Mark and Gary tied Tommy up. Gary pressed the button on his stopwatch. “Go!”
Tommy struggled and struggled. Ten minutes later, he still hadn’t gotten loose.
“Guess you’ll have to stay here all night,” Mark said.
Tommy looked scared, “Jesus! I gotta’ pee! Let me loose!”
After Mark and Gary untied him, Tommy hustled to the bushes. Mark yelled at him to watch out for demons that might grab his thing and pull it off.
“Now it’s your turn,” Gary said as he turned to Mark.
Mark smiled and held out his hands. “I won’t have much trouble beating Tommy’s time.”
Tommy picked up the rope and the two boys looped it around Mark’s arms and hands and then wound it tight around his legs.
“Hey,” Mark said, “At least give me some room to breathe.”
Gary tied the last knot and looked Mark straight in the eye. “You’ve got to tell us something. Are you a wizard? Did you cast a spell on Coach and Mrs. Prior and me? Tell the truth now. Did you sell your soul to the Devil?”
Mark, uneasy now, answered in a sarcastic tone. “Of course I did. I cast spells on everybody. I can even make these ropes disappear.”
His friends looked at the ropes as if they expected them to turn into snakes and crawl off.
“Let’s do it!” Gary said as he pulled Mark down the pier.
“Are you sure?” Tommy twisted his hands and furrowed his brow.
“We’re going to save his soul and get it back from the Devil!” Gary said.
“You guys are crazy! Don’t push me in that water! I’ll drown! You’re crazy!” Mark struggled with the ropes, but he couldn’t break loose and, as he threshed around at the edge of the pond, he fell off the pier and sank out of sight.
“Now, if he doesn’t come up, he’s not a wizard,” Gary said.
“Jesus!” Tommy shook with fright. “What if he does come back up?”
“Then he’s a wizard.”
“He’s gonna be one pissed-off wizard!” Tommy struggled with the logic of this test.
“I can’t see him, can you?” Gary was scared now.
Just then, there was movement in the water. Mark popped to the top. His hands flailed as he struggled to the pier. “Help me! Help!” The rope was loose around him, but he made little progress.
“He got loose!” Gary said.
“He’s drowning!”
“I can’t swim!” Mark’s head went under water.
“I gotta help him!” Gary said as he jumped in the water. He pulled his struggling friend to shore.
“What did you nuts think you were doing? You almost killed me!”
“I thought maybe you were a wizard. You know, the spells and all,” Gary said.
“Wizard! I’ll wizard you!” Mark lunged for him, but slipped and fell in the mud. “I thought you were my friends!”
“We just wanted to save your soul.” Gary moved away from Mark.
“You’re crazy! There’s no such thing as a soul!” Mark ran down the path, his shoes making sloshing sounds, his sobs echoing into the empty night.
“I guess we were wrong. I guess we really did do something crazy,” Tommy said as he watched Mark run away.
“Well.” Gary looked out over the pond. “He really did come to the top, didn’t he? Isn’t that what wizards do? I hope he ain’t too mad.”
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Phil Richardson is retired from Ohio University and lives in Athens, Ohio where he writes literary and genre fiction. His wife Joyce is a poet and a mystery writer. Two of Phil’s stories were nominated for the Pushcart Prize in Fiction and he has won or placed in numerous writing contests. His publications include over seventy stories in print and online magazines and in 21 anthologies. Phil’s website with links to some published stories is philrichardsonstories.com
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The Adventures of Rabbit

 

a retelling by

Ed Ahern

of a folk tale

recorded by Charles Leland

in The Algonquin Legends of New England

1884

Of the old times.
Some Indian  tribes called him Mahtiguess, the Rabbit, but the Micmac called him Ableegumooch, Master Rabbit, and this part of Rabbit’s tale was told by the Micmacs.
Rabbit lived in hard times in a wigwam with his grandmother, waiting for things to get better. It was a brittle cold winter, with ice on the river and snow on the plain, and Rabbit could not find food.
One day, while running through the forest and leaving deep tracks in the snow he saw a solitary lodge. Inside was Keeoony the Otter. Otter’s wigwam was on the banks of a river, with an ice slide from the door of the lodge to the edge of the river.
Otter welcomed Rabbit into his wigwam, and offered to cook him food. Rabbit was skinny from hunger and quickly said yes.
“Wait here in the warmth of the lodge,” Otter said, “ while I catch supper.”
Otter took down hooks he used to hold the fish he caught.  Laying down on his belly at the top of the ice slide, he pushed off and slid down the slide and deep into the water. In a little while he came out of the water with three eels on hooks. They quickly cleaned, cooked, and ate the eels.
My life! thought the Rabbit. This is an easy way to live. Fishers do little work and eat well. I am cleverer than this otter, I must be able to do this.
And Rabbit was so confident that that he asked Otter to come visit and eat with him- adamadusk ketkewop– in three days time.
The next morning Rabbit called to his grandmother. “Come, we will move our wigwam down to the lake.”
And they moved their wigwam down to a bank on the lake. Rabbit poured water to make an ice slide, just as Otter had. When Otter arrived, Rabbit called to his grandmother, “Prepare for dinner!”
“But what am I to cook, grandson?”
“I will see to that.”
Rabbit grabbed a nabogun, a stick for stringing eels, and hopped over to the ice slide.
But Rabbit was not made for sliding, and as soon as he got onto the ice he swerved right, then left,  then tumbled tail over head until he fell into the water. And things got worse. Rabbit fur is not Otter fur, and Rabbit began to freeze in the cold water. Rabbit also is perhaps the worst swimmer of the animals. He lost his breath, struggled, and began to sink.
Otter was looking down the bank at these thrashings. “What is wrong with this fellow?” he asked the grandmother.
“He has seen you do this,” said grandmother, “and is trying to do as you do.”
“Ho!” yelled Otter.” Come out of the water and hand me your nabogun.”
Rabbit crawled, shivering, out of the water and up the bank. He gave his nabogun to Otter and limped into his lodge to get warm.
Otter slid down the bank and plunged into the lake. He surfaced again in a few minutes with several fish held on the nabogun. Otter was angry at Rabbit for attempting what he could not perform. He threw the fish down at the entrance to the wigwam and went back to his lodge without tasting a single fish.
Rabbit was embarrassed and disappointed, but not discouraged, for he never gave up. One day in Spring he was wandering in the woods when he came to a wigwam filled with several pretty girls, all wearing red headdresses and looking just like birds. And no wonder, for they were woodpecker sisters.
Rabbit may have been rash and over confident, but he also had good manners. He and the girls talked together so happily that he was invited to dinner, which he immediately accepted, for Rabbit was still very hungry.
One of the red-capped girls took at wooden dish, a woltes, and seemed to run right up a tree. She stopped here and there, tapping now at this spot, now at that, picking out insects called rice, apchel-moal-timpkawal, because the little bugs looked like rice grains. These bugs, for those who like to eat them, are very tasty. The woodpecker sisters quickly boiled the insects and they all sat down to eat.
And Rabbit thought, how easy it is for some people to live.
“Girls,” he said, “come over and eat with me the day after tomorrow.”
When the woodpecker sisters arrived rabbit took the pointed head of an eel spear and tied it to the front of his face. And Rabbit started to climb up a spruce tree. But rabbit paws are not made for climbing and Rabbit did not get very high. He began banging his head against the tree trunk, but Rabbit did not know where the insects were hiding. And Rabbit’s face began to get bruised and bled from the pounding of the eel spear head.
The pretty woodpecker sisters laughed loudly and asked Rabbit’s grandmother what he was doing.
“Ah,” said grandmother,” I suppose he is trying to do what he has seen someone else do. It’s like him.”
One of the woodpecker girls stopped laughing and yelled up at Rabbit, “Come down here and give me your bowl, your woltes.” She grabbed the bowl from rabbit and hopped right up the spruce. Pecking here and there she soon had a bowlful for them to eat.
But it was a long time after that before Rabbit’s face healed and even longer before the tree-tapping sisters quit reminding him of hitting his head against a tree with the tip of an eel spear.
Even after this, Rabbit still thought about living as other animals do and not as a rabbit does. For Rabbit was very strong of will, and once his strong mind was set he would almost have to die before he changed it.
One day, while wandering in the woods, Rabbit came to a bear cave, and Mooin the Bear invited him in.
And Rabbit asked Mooin, “I have heard a story that you are able to live during the Winter by sucking on your own paws. Is this so?”
Mooin did not explain, but only said, “Join us while we eat.”
The bear Mooin took a huge pot and put it over the fire. He filled the pot half full with water. Then he took a knife and cut a little slice from a pad under his foot. Mooin threw the slice into the pot and it boiled and grew into a huge chunk of meat which was served to Rabbit and the bear family. And there was a large piece left over which was given to Rabbit to take back to his lodge.
Truly, thought rabbit, this is a thing I can do. For it is told in wampum beads that whatever a bear can do a rabbit can do better.
Rabbit turned to Mooin the Bear and asked him, ketekewopk, to dine with him the day after tomorrow.
After Bear had arrived, Rabbit said to grandmother, “Noogume Kuesawal wohu, set your pot to boiling.” Rabbit whetted his knife and started slicing at his feet. But Rabbit’s soles are small and thin and he got almost nothing despite all the cutting and pain.
“What is he trying to do?” growled Mooin.
“Ah,” sighed the grandmother, “something he has seen someone else do.”
“Ho! You! Rabbit!” said the bear, “Give me the knife.”
Bear took a small slice from his sole, which did him no harm. He threw the slice into the pot and they all ate. But Rabbit was in considerable pain, and even after the pain went away he was embarrassed to remember trying to feed Mooin.
Rabbit began to understand that he was bad at imitating others, but good at persevering. He quit trying to do as others did and did as he was meant to do. Rabbit studied and gained magic power, m’teoulin. And it was good that he did, for he fell into great trouble with Lusifee, the Wild Cat. But that is a tale told by the Passamaquoddy, for another time.
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The Queen of May

 a story by

Frederick Hilary

 
Gerald lived a cloistered life. His house was large enough for multiple families, yet he shared it with no one; the dining room was spacious enough for the gathering of many friends, yet he dined alone. The halls and corridors would have echoed with the footfalls of running children, had he any relatives to bring them, but only the draughts blew through them. It was a great old house which amplified his loneliness.
He was unhappy. Unhappy, yes, but it was not an unhappiness which weighs down on the soul and withers it, or else it did not seem so to him. Rather, it was an opiate bitterness, enlarging his sense of self and giving him a tragic self-importance. To him, one thing alone mattered: that he labour on his writings, and shut himself off from the world outside.
One day there came a knock at his door. Gerald started at this, for visitors were rare indeed, and Mrs Mulvaney had left for the afternoon. Crouched at his desk, pen poised over a sentence, he wondered  what he should do. A second knock came, prompting further contemplation. At the third knock he finally rose and made his way to the entrance hall.
When he opened the door, he was taken aback. He was not used to visitors at all, and he was certainly not used to visitors like this one. A woman stood there – hardly a woman, a girl of perhaps sixteen. She wore a long frock embroidered with flowers whose colour was so vivid and texture so fine that they looked real; there were real flowers in her hair, too, and what could only be described, frankly, as straw. She smelt of fresh grass and May blossoms, and before Gerald could open his mouth she spoke. Her eyes were not a maiden’s, he later recalled, despite her youthful look. “I am the Queen of May,” she said, “and I have come to put the old to death, and to breathe upon the new.”
“I’m sorry, it’s not really a good time to…”
Gerald wasn’t given time to finish. The girl had glided past him into the house. He followed the trail of flowers and straw she had left strewn behind her in the hall.
“Why have you come here?” said Gerald, catching up with her in the parlour.
“Because,” she said, “this house is withering under your feet. Look at the carpet. It is old and ash-stained, and the colour has dimmed so that it is nigh impossible to tell what the original pattern was. Let it Spring up again.” And as she said this, something miraculous was already occurring beneath Gerald’s feet. The carpet, which had till then held a dark and indistinct pattern, suddenly became jewelled with little points of colour that shimmered before his eyes. They shimmered, and then grew into lines, and suddenly there was movement of shape and colour in the weave, as if tracing lost lines, and myriad patterns emerged as if at once: fruit, the fronds of plants, birds singing from branches, an explosion of fruitfulness and colour, bursting out so suddenly and completely from the cloth that Gerald thought he would be engulfed in the bloom of a real garden. But then he felt his feet rooted steadily to the ground and his perspective returned to normal; though there was a carpet of vivid and lush garden colours beneath his feet, he was still standing in his parlour with the familiar objects of his cloistered existence all around him.
He stepped around, his feet testing the cloth, speechless. It was magic, surely. The Queen of May, or whatever she really was, had passed on. “Come back,” called Gerald, following in her train. “Explain how you did that. What’s the trick?”
“The trick?” the Queen of May laughed without looking back. “The trick can only be felt. It cannot be explained, or put into mere words. Go look at a Spring meadow and wonder how the new shoots rise from their sleeping places. Life springs from death and Winter’s sleep. The sun is a conspirator, the thaw and an end to frosts pave the way, but there are invisible things, spirits in the earth you do not see, and scarcely understand. Do not ask me more. Come with me, and let us put an end to withering.”
They were in his study. Gerald saw his oak desk sitting idle, the pages all but unmarked, and it pained him. Let the Queen go about her business quickly, so that he may return to his equations. “I’d really rather you didn’t change anything here,” said Gerald. “You see, this is my work station, and I can’t bear anything being changed around. Things can get lost. Important documents. Mrs Mulvaney doesn’t come up here.”
The Queen cast her glance around. “Not the most inspiring of rooms, is it?”
“Well, it’s not really about inspiration. It’s the elimination of distraction that I’ve worked on, you see. Can’t have anything getting in the way. There was a window over there, but I’ve had the bookcase put in front of it, so that I don’t idle away the hours gazing out at the orchard.”
The Queen, he saw with rising dread, was already lifting her arms. “Not the desk!” he pleaded. “Anything but my work papers.”
The Queen, though, had turned towards the cabinet to the side. She spoke inaudible words, pointed her fingers towards the cabinet, and the transformation took place. The cabinet had held prized first editions of Gerald’s most beloved works: books on astronomy, mathematics, philosophy, even alchemy. It was old, deep red in colour, and the glass had become grimy with dust, so that one could barely guess what lay behind it.
Now, instead of a cabinet, Gerald saw before him a tree, a tree with a multitude of branches, branches of budding leaves, and instead of books he saw roosting white birds, doves and pigeons, trilling from between the arch of branches. He nearly fainted. “My books. What’s happened to them?” What indeed had happened to them? He looked again, and saw that just as with the carpet, it was not as he first believed, for the glass was covered with the images of birds, and the wooden frame around patterned with leaves and branches, so that the once stout old cabinet had become vibrant and a delight to the senses. He bent towards his desk, peered down at the papers, and found himself cocking his head to the right at the splash of colour that had invaded the room.
“No more,” Gerald mumbled, running after the Queen. “There really isn’t any need. But what am I saying? This is my house. I forbid you to do anything else.”
“As I’ve already explained, your house is in the diocese of the Queen of May, and so I shall do as I like.”
Gerald held back as she disappeared through the doorway. He swung his desk chair around and sat down, head in his hands. Through the gaps in his fingers he could see the lush green of the leaves on the rug, whose fate had obviously been the same as the cabinet’s. This woman had invaded his house. He would have to do something about it, something to stop her. “How does one contend with a myth?” he told himself. “How does one fight magic? Or go against the Spring?” The latter came into his head unbidden: it was her voice, the same certainty of tone and indifference of feeling, like nature personified. And then his own, much younger voice, just as unbidden, from his student days, when arguing in the Oxford debating society was his weekly sport. “In the clash of opposites there is no winning. It’s like an endless tag team. Winter strikes at Spring, Spring strikes at Winter. Every victory temporary. World without end.”
“If this is a dream, then magic may equally lie at my fingertips,” thought Gerald.
The unbidden voice returned. “Dreams abide by logic, just as waking. Magic exists, but laws cannot be bent. If Spring troubles you, look towards Winter.”
“Look towards Winter,” mumbled Gerald. “Where can I find Winter? Winter personified, of course, for that is the logic of the Queen of May. We are barely into the change of season. The balance is a delicate one. Gales may blow about the house, and frost lie on the panes, just as easily as Spring sunshine. I will go and find Winter, wherever he is hiding. Where else, but in the places where the sun does not penetrate.”
And so Gerald put on his walking boots, and tied his Winter coat about him, and went out of the house, while elsewhere in its endless rooms the Queen of May was going about her work, ruining all that was dark and sober and dust-covered. He went towards the wood first. It was no more than habit, for he went there sometimes in his walks, for the gloom agreed with him. Where might Winter be hiding? In which nooks and corners had Spring not yet stepped with her light yet ruinous tread? Old Jack Frost would be lurking somewhere, or perhaps the North Wind. He would find them, and set them loose in the house, and undo the work of that mistress of the Spring.
With his footsteps he traced the walkways in the wood fruitlessly. No sign of Winter or its ambassadors. He went to the orchard next, and found nothing there either, and thence to the old well near the courthouse, and the brook beside the bathing pool, and not one glimpse of Winter did he see. Time was running short. Vast as the house was, how many rooms yet lay untouched by the Queen of May? Before he found his champion, she would have transformed all, and set to rights what ought not to be righted at all.
No voice came unbidden from his past this time. Think, then, he told himself. Where is the last resting place of Winter, before he enters that final sleep, and Spring triumphs over all. I cannot make the North Wind blow, nor can I hasten the night, so that Jack Frost presses his fingers against the window pane. Spring sleeps in the earth, the seeds of her flowers sleep in the lowliest places, hidden from wind and weather. That’s it! Higher ground. The old stony hills. The Steeple. Where the air is raw and the winds blow hardest, that’s where Jack Frost can be found.
So Gerald struck the path to the nearest of the Beacons, and before long he was out of breath but able to look down on the low valley where his house lay, and with grim determination he vowed that he would soon return with his ally, and put an end to the Queen of May’s works once and for all. He picked amongst the stony hills, and caught himself in a shout more than once, a cry of “Winter! Winter! Come to me!” But no white, frost-garmented figure came. So he made at last for the peak of the highest hill, known locally as the Steeple, and when he got there he felt the cold Northern wind sting his face, and he stooped amongst the stones, and began to root in all the shadows, with nothing to show for his work.
“What do you look for?” said the voice at his back.
Gerald stiffened. He did not answer. The voice repeated the question, and if there was any doubt the first time he was now sure: here was the same certainty of tone and indifference of feeling that he’d heard in the Queen of May’s voice, only this voice was colder, and gustier; the words seeming to cling to the air and freeze it.
“You cannot win, but nor can she,” said the voice, before he could even explain. “Things hang in the balance for an hour, a day, a month or two, but the turning always happens, and sorrow turns to defeat, and defeat to awakening hope, and hope to victory. The great thaw and freeze are in endless dance together. Turn back, and let her do her work.”
“Not yet,” said Gerald. “Not yet. And besides, this time she has come where I have not bidden her. My house is my own. Let Spring rule the gardens, and the woods, and all the verdant glades to her heart’s content, but leave me my own.”
“Very well,” said the voice. “Turn and face me. Show me to her, and let us claim a last victory before the next turning.”
Gerald rose, and turned about him, and saw the Winter King, Jack Frost himself, with a beard of long icicles, and eyes that were like two cold emeralds, smiling back at him. “Quick, quick, let’s do the work. Lead me to the Queen of May,” he said, and went tumbling down the hill like a snowball, and before Gerald could take more than a few steps he had blown into the house and was gone from sight. Gerald, panting, gave pursuit, until he was at the door to his house; there was an eerie silence within, and with a grim step he went inside.
He passed from room to room, looking for the Winter King or the Queen of May, but saw only the signs of their passing. It was if they were locked in battle, and each room bore the marks of their victories. In some rooms Spring had lightened everything, as it had been when the Queen of May drove Gerald from the house; the scent of flowers, brightness, dust and cobwebs brushed away. In others there was the indelible touch of Winter: frost covered tapestries, lingering cold, ice upon the window panes, and the stale smell of leaves having laid long in the earth. Nowhere could he find either Winter King or Queen of May, though, and it was hard to tell who was winning, for through seeming countless rooms, and through some Gerald had never set foot in before, there was no more than a chequered history of their battle – Winter gave way to Spring, and Spring to Winter, so much that Gerald found himself disorientated.
Gerald came to a stop in one of the upstairs bedrooms. He was quite faint, and felt run off his feet. Before he could catch his breath he heard a voice at his rear. “It seems I cannot win, and neither can she.”
Gerald turned to face Jack Frost. The two green icicles that were his eyes glinted fiercely, and his mouth was set and determined. “Come,” she tells me. “I will dance with you on the lawns. Let us forget our quarrel.”  She knows this must be, for we both work towards the same end, ultimately. What makes you want to escape utterly the cycles of birth and death?”
“I don’t want to escape anything,” Gerald said. “I want her out of the house. And you also, if you can do no more than bring frost and ice to one room and not the next. Can you not undo what she has done?”
“I have done so. But yet she turns things back again. She will not yield, and I will not yield, and everything is unsettled.”
“How can a man put a stop to the Spring?”
“He cannot.”
“Thanks. I’m thinking, actually. I thought Winter the answer also, yet you have done little good.”
“If that is all the gratitude you offer, I shall return to my hiding place amongst the crags.”
“What about the North Wind?”
“He is my cousin. He will do no better than I.”
“Well, I am convinced there is an answer to this. If Winter cannot banish Spring for any conceivable length of time in this house, if the great North Wind cannot blow her straw hair away, I will find another way. If Nature cannot turn against herself, what if man sets himself against Nature?”
Jack Frost’s eyes were gleaming suspiciously. He seemed ready to dart away, yet he lingered.
Beads of sweat began to trickle from Gerald’s forehead. “The answer! I have it,” he said.
“What gives power over the turning seasons? What gives power over death?”
“Well?”
“Magic. Power. The cabinet!  The logic of the dream dictates that I use whatever means suit the myth. There is a book in the cabinet, no more than a curiosity I believed, which may do the trick.”
“But you do not believe in such things. And besides, if it is a dream, why do you trouble yourself over it?”
“Because, dream or not, it rules my work. I will rather have done with it, and if I cannot make myself wake, I will triumph in line with its dream logic.”
In the cabinet he found the book he was looking for. The spell was called “No Time,” and would freeze space and the inhabitant within so that the season could not change anything of its existence. It would turn out the Queen of May and lock all within a perpetual solitude beyond the struggle of generations. Gerald took the book and laid it open over his papers on the great oak desk. Jack Frost peered over his shoulder. “I thought you were leaving?” Gerald said.
“I will stay for a while, until the spell is done.”
A dove flew past the desk. Gerald realised that the doves on the cabinet had come alive.
“Ah, the Queen of May mocks you,” said Jack, and blew an icy blast that killed the bird instantly.
“You will not stop me?” Gerald asked as he thumbed the pages.
“Why should I? It is not Nature entire that will be stopped. It is just your tiny sphere. And besides, I would like to see the Queen of May bested at last.”
There, at last, was the spell. Gerald rehearsed the words in his mind. It only remained to speak them.
The Queen of May had entered the room. Gerald turned, and Jack Frost at his side turned with him, looking equally perturbed as he.
“Do you desire death?” the Queen of May said.
“No, life. I will stop time from flowing. I want neither Winter nor Spring.”
The Queen of May smiled. “So you will place yourself, and all in this house, beyond Winter and Spring.”
“That is what I will do.”
“So then, you will not love? And neither will you fear loss?”
“I will be beyond them all,” said Gerald. “I will have only my books to feed on. No more will the trifling world darken my path, or pound upon my door. Goodbye, then, Spring, and you too, Jack Frost. Be gone from this house. Fly out of here, whether through window crack or chimney flue, go back to nature. For nothing of nature is here.”
He saw them poised before him as he opened his mouth. He spoke the words. The next instant they were gone, and he neither knew nor cared whether the spell had banished them or whether they had fled from its power. Staring down at the oak desk, he saw that all the papers were untouched and unruffled; that the cabinet had returned to its dull coat of grime, with no trace of the carvings. All the colour and the images of nature the Queen of May had introduced were gone; so too was the filament of ice that had covered everything in the rooms where Jack Frost had scored a victory.
Gerald sat down at his desk. He wrote, and picked out a book, and took it down from his shelf, and delved into its secrets, and when as an afterthought he looked towards the corner of window visible behind the cabinet he saw only an indistinct grey blur, an abstraction of colours and shapes, giving no hint of the changing of seasons. Days went by, and weeks and months, and when from time to time, in the hour of the weakening of his thoughts, Gerald looked up towards the little space of window, he learned to read the passing seasons from the vague impressions of colour there. The realisation pricked him, when he saw, for instance, that Winter had bound the land in snow, but no sooner had the thought entered his mind than he lowered his head to the words of his book, or focused on his pen, and the memory was gone again.
There was a indeterminate longing, he decided, that came from these glimpses of change through the glass, so he gave the cabinet a final shove until there was no light from the window to enter; nor in the rest of the house did the windows let in any shape or impression now but light; he wondered why this could be, for dust did not fall upon the rooms now that time within the shell had been stopped. But it was better, for he needed no reminder of what was beyond his own domain.
Of course, there were no visitors of any kind. The housekeeper never came. There were no accidental callers, and no trifles to interrupt the work itself. Gerald scratched away on the paper, and as he did so he looked at his hands, and wondered if they looked old, if the lines that now existed had been there before the spell had been cast. Time does not exist here, he told himself. I cannot grow old, for I have sealed this house against time and the withering of generations.
His life went on thus, for how long he did not know, for there were no markers, nothing to keep a record of time passing.
And then one day, there was a knock at the door. There are no accidental callers, Gerald told himself. How can this be? There was a second knock, as Gerald’s pen quivered over the paper. And a third, and only then did he rise and make his way to the entrance hall. A memory came back to him, a memory of how, long ago – how long there was no telling – the Queen of May had come to his door to bring Spring, unwanted Spring, into his guarded rooms. He felt a pang somewhere deep within, a stirring amidst the numbness.
Was he going mad? Did he desire that the Queen come back? All this time, he had wanted to be left alone. Had there really been something lovely, after all, in the colour she had brought to his shabby carpets, to the disorder she brought to his ordered neglect?
He held his breath and opened the door. There was a woman there. It was the Queen of May, surely. Had she had come back to ask if he wanted a second chance, if he wanted to spruce up his rooms? Even Jack Frost, he decided, would be welcome. There on the threshold of the door, Gerald felt the turning about in his feelings. Was it so bad, after all, to let in a little fresh air, a little light, a little bit of nature, now and again? It need not mean giving up the work, only staggering it.
He looked at the figure of the woman, back turned to him, dressed in a long shawl of black.
“Do you want to come in?”
The woman took time in answering. All the time she did not face him, but then said,
“Come out, Gerald.”
“Why did you knock?”
“I did not.”
“Are you the Queen of May?”
“She is a conspirator of mine.”
“What about Jack Frost?”
“He, also, works towards the same end.”
She reached out a hand from her shawl and touched him, and feeling that touch he realised who had come for him.
She was leading him across the fields. He let her press his hand tightly, and walked behind her willingly enough, and the fields they passed through were Winter turning to Spring.
+
Frederick Hilary, a writer of mythic fiction and fantasy, has been published in Cabinet des Fees, New Fairy Tales, and the Mythic Circle. His website can be found at http://frederickhilary.weebly.com/
+

Aunty Merkel

 a story by

Deborah Walker

           
An English church. An August wedding.
Aunty Merkel sits at the front of the church, staring at the happy couple. She’s wearing her wedding suit, a three-buttoned crotched jacket over a matching dress. The light from the stained glass windows reflects off her wing-tipped, milk-bottle glasses.
Two widows, Edith and her sister, Moira, sit, whispering to each other, passing comment on the rest of the congregation. They have chosen a respectable position in the middle of the rows of pews: close enough to show that they are family, far enough to show that they are not pushing themselves forward. 
“Is that Aunty Merkel?” says Moira. “My word, yes, it is.” 
“She must be getting on a bit,” says Edith. “I remember her being around when I was just a kiddie.”
“She attends every family wedding,” say Moira. “She must love weddings.”
“She can’t love them that much; she’s an old maid,” says Edith.
“What’s that in her bag? It looks like a rat.” Moira leans forward to observe the strange creature peeping out from Aunty Merkel’s handbag.
“That’s Mr Tegmark,” says Edith. “Aunty Merkel’s hairless cat. She was always rather eccentric.”
“It’s an odd looking creature,” says Moira. When she catches the cat’s eye, it disappears into the depths of Aunty Merkel’s bag. “That’s a cat that doesn’t like to be looked at,” says Moira with a sniff.
The bride’s matron of honour walks to the front of the church. She grips the sides of the eagle lectern. Her voice trembles as she speaks.
“Nerves,” says Edith.
The words of the matron of honour flow over the sisters:
“Wither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge. Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God. Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried. The Lord do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me.”
Ruth is such a lovely book,” murmurs Moira.
Edith nods, lost in the past. They had read from the Book of Ruth at her own marriage. Such a happy marriage. She misses her Bert so much…. She seems to remember the glint of reflected light at her ceremony. “She never comes to the reception,” she says.
“Who doesn’t?”
“Aunty Merkel.”
“Ah.”
“She never gave me a present, either,” whispers Edith, running her finger along the neckline of her dress, which has been bought especially for this wedding and which is a little too tight.
The sounds of the organ fills the church: All Things Bright and Beautiful. It’s a well chosen hymn. The congregation know this one and they join in with gusto.
Then Cousin Mitch stands up to make the final reading.
Edith nudges her sister, “The nerve of him, bringing his fancy piece to a family wedding,” she says.
Moira raises an eyebrow in agreement, “He says she’s trying to get a divorce.”
“Divorce? I don’t approve of divorce,” says Edith.
Cousin Mitch stands at the lectern and reads aloud: 
“Love is never boastful, nor conceited, nor rude; never selfish, not quick to take offense. There is nothing love cannot face; there is no limit to its faith, its hope, and endurance. In a word, there are three things that last forever: faith, hope, and love; but the greatest of them all is love.”
The sisters have forgotten Aunty Merkel. Thoughts slide around Aunty Merkel; it’s better that way. 
Aunty Merkel never brings a present, she brings something better. She’s staring at the happy couple and she’s shifting through their futures, unravelling the ball of tangled string to find the thread of their happy marriage.
Chaotic inflation means that multiverse is always stretching, like a loaf of bread, forever baking in the oven of eternity.  Aunty Merkel likes wedding; she likes this family;  she likes this bubble universe that stopped expanding a while ago, and sits static in the bread. When this bubble formed in a spasm of spontaneous symmetry it enclosed linear time. You can keep the other  10^10^10^7  bubbles with their diverse physical constraints. Aunty Merkel likes linearity; she likes ceremony; she likes repetition.
The couple make their vows.
A successful marriage is difficult, but in this bubbleverse there are plenty of worlds to choose from, there’s room for happiness. Aunty Merkel searchers for the dopplegangers of the happy couple; through the parallels and possibilities; through the hubble volumes; discarding the myriad worlds of sadness, disappointment, divorce; always following one thread: there are three things that last forever . . . the greatest of them all is love.
When the couple finish their vows and kiss, Aunty Merkel gives the couple their gift. Moira was right: Aunty Merkel is a romantic. And, although, she never brings a present; she always gives the couple their future.
The wedding is over and the congregation wait outside the church while the couple sign the register.
Edith rummages in her handbag for a box of confetti.
“Where’s Aunty Merkel?” asks Moira.
“She must have slipped away.”
“Why, Edith you’re crying.”
Edith wipes away the tear, “I had such a happy marriage, Moira.”
Moira grips her sister’s hand so tightly that her knuckles show white through the skin, “I know, my love. We both did. We were both blessed.”
+
Deborah Walker grew up in the most English town in the country, but she soon high-tailed it down to London, where she now lives. Her stories have appeared in Nature’s Futures, Cosmos and Daily Science Fiction and The Year’s Best SF 18. Find Deborah in the British Museum trawling the past for future inspiration or on her blog: deborahwalkersbibliography.blogspot.com 

 

Next Issue of

BEORH QUARTERLY

Out in May!

Join Us!

Winter 2013

all content © 2013

Greetings, Dear Friends!

In this delightful issue of BEORH QUARTERLY we introduce five new stories from our own day as we creep more and more toward the Light. Danielle Davis brings us terror with “The Collection.”

I then offer yet another tale from benighted Salem, but this time–I promise–not about witchcraft.

Then David Galef introduces us to “The Junk Man,” a delightful sojourner sure to whisk you away into a Bradburyesque world of shadowy whimsy.

Beth J. Whiting, a new favorite writer of mine and one I am happy to feature regularly, then tells us the story of “Seaweed” which brings to mind a certain Sid & Marty Krofft production many of us watched on TV every Saturday morning as kids.

And then… surprise! Ken & Barbie make an appearance in Sandy Hiortdahl’s “The Dream House Holiday,” a warm and funny view of Faeries from, yes, their own perspective.

Wintertime is here again, and you, good reader, are welcomed yet again to Beorh Quarterly !

+

The Collection

a story by

Danielle Davis

+
“I’m not too sure about this,” Suzanne said. She stood just inside the threshold of the front door. She shifted her weight from one foot to the other and glanced around like she expected something bad to happen. The hallway smelled like old people and boiled eggs. Faintly, underneath it all, there was a hint of bleach. It was like someone woke up, made breakfast, and set about to clean right away.
“Oh come on. It’ll be ok. Besides, we’re coming right out again in a minute.” Mark was already out of sight around the corner into the living room. It was his house, but his parents weren’t home yet, and this was the first time Suzanne had gone to a friend’s house when their parents weren’t there. She was pretty sure she’d be grounded if her dad found out, so she was anxious to get home.
A tabby cat poked its head from underneath a love seat in the entranceway and meowed at Suzanne. She stepped forward to pet it, glancing around again as her fingers rubbed the soft fur at the back of its ears. It leaned into her touch and closed its eyes in bliss, purring like a small motor. “If my parents find out that I’m over here…” She didn’t quite want to admit that she wasn’t supposed to be there. The Brewster twins, Mary and Mark, had only been at her school for a week, but she’d already developed a crush on Mark that her parents probably wouldn’t approve of. They told her sister Marianne that she was too young to be interested in boys, and she was a year and a half older. Suzanne was thrilled that Mark had invited her to his house—the last thing she wanted to do was act like she was scared of breaking the rules. That wasn’t how cool kids acted.
“What, they don’t let you visit friends’ houses?” Mark’s head popped out from behind the corner. He frowned. The cat gave a venomous hiss and darted back under the loveseat, startling Suzanne. Mark rolled his eyes. “That cat hates people. I’m surprised she let you touch her. You coming?”
Suzanne followed Mark into the living room and down a long hallway. The house looked ordinary, with a few boxes stacked against the wall. “We’re still unpacking,” Mark said over his shoulder. It was eerie to be in someone else’s house without their parents being home.
Mark stopped in front of a bedroom door that had a poster of Spiderman taped on it. Inside, the room was mostly boxes, with rumpled sheets on a bed against one wall and a lonely chest of drawers across from it. There were bumper stickers stuck to the fronts of the drawers, but the print was too small for Suzanne to make them out without staring.
Mark darted around the bed, picked something up from the floor and held it out to her. “Isn’t this cool? My dad bought it for me when we moved here. He said it might help me make friends.” It was a remote-controlled helicopter with blades that sounded like a hive of bees buzzing when it hovered. He demonstrated how lights on the side flashed when it made machine gun noises. Suzanne tried to pretend she was interested. But she was acutely aware of the time shown on the digital clock next to his bed. Her skin started to feel itchy with the sense that every minute she stayed put her one minute closer to being grounded. “Can we hurry? I’m supposed to be home in ten minutes.” It embarrassed her to admit she had a curfew, but she decided nothing was worth risking getting grounded for, not even a visit to Mark Brewster’s house.
“Do you always have to go straight home?”
“Not usually. Just since…” Suzanne glanced at the doorway and lowered her voice. “Just since the murders. My dad said it’s not safe to dawdle after school until they catch whoever did it.”
“Oh, yeah. I kinda heard about that.”
“You kinda heard? Wasn’t Terrence Latrell in your English class?” She was surprised—she thought everyone was taking the murders as seriously as her dad was.
“Wait, that’s why he’s been out this week? He got killed?” Mark’s eyes were wide. His mouth hung open as he stared at the floor in shock. “Oh man. I just thought… well, that he’d been sick or something. But killed?”
Suzanne straightened a little, pleased to be able to show off her knowledge on a subject he obviously didn’t know much about. “There’ve been three so far,” she said. “All kids.” She cocked her head. “Well,” she added, “the first was a high school kid. But the last two were from our school.” Her voice dropped even lower, and when she leaned toward Mark, he leaned forward, too, to hear her better. “My dad says there’s a serial killer on the loose.” She allowed a gloating smile when Mark’s eyes got even wider. “My mom got real mad when he said that, because it was at the dinner table. But I heard them talking later that night about it, and she thinks it’s one, too.”
Mark fidgeted with the edge of his shirt. “Yeah, my mom and dad mentioned that earlier, too.” Suzanne’s shoulders slumped a bit—she’d thought her parents were pretty smart to have come up with that—but Mark didn’t notice. “They were worried about my sister.”
“They were worried she’d be killed?”
“No, not that. Worried that…” He looked up at her, and she was surprised to see that he looked uncertain, as if he were struggling to decide what to tell her. “Do you know why we came to Woodbury?” She shook her head. “My sister kept getting into… she had some trouble at our last school.” He looked at his shirt again. “It got so bad that we had to move.”
Suzanne stared at him, unsure how to respond. “That’s… terrible.”
Mark gave an angry glance to the side. “It wasn’t fair!” he said. “One day stuff started happening and everyone thought it was her. People all over town kept harassing us. The teachers whispered things behind our backs. Folks tried to pretend they weren’t staring at us when we went to the grocery store. The neighborhood kids, kids at school—they started with the names. Calling her ‘Bloody Mary’ and ‘Mary the Maniac.’ It was awful! She’d come home crying every day. It wasn’t even her fault.” Suzanne thought she saw a shine of tears collecting in Mark’s eyes. “This is our chance to start over.”
“What kind of stuff happened?” Suzanne asked in a soft voice.
Mark blinked and frowned at her. “What?”
“You said stuff started happening. What kind of stuff? Was it the same kind of stuff as here?” Goosebumps rose along her arms. She felt her scalp tighten. The room felt colder, though she knew it probably wasn’t. It was her that was getting colder as she listened.
Mark opened his mouth, but before he could answer, a door slammed shut somewhere back the way they’d come. Suzanne jumped and whirled to face the hallway. “Hello!” a woman’s voice called out. “Hello? Anybody home yet?”
Mark stepped past her to the door and leaned his head out of the room. “I’m here, Mom! And I’ve got a friend. Suzanne.” It seemed so strange for him to be calling down the hall instead of going to meet his mother to talk. Suzanne’s mom always got on to her for yelling in the house, when she could just as easily walk to the other room talk in a normal voice like a civilized young lady.
“Oh lovely, sweetheart! Is she from school?”
Even though Mark’s mother sounded cheerful, Suzanne thought it felt wrong, somehow. She supposed it was just because of what she and Mark had been talking about.
Mark glanced back at Suzanne with a theatrical roll of his eyes. She giggled. “Of course from school, Mom! I was just showing her my pets.”
“Well, don’t get too messy, love. You don’t want to ruin your school clothes.”
Suzanne touched Mark’s arm. “No, wait. I can’t. I need to get home, remember?”
“It won’t take very long. They’re in the closet. Don’t you want to see?”
“But…” She glanced between Mark and the doorway, torn. “If my dad finds out, I’ll be grounded for life.”
“Relax.” He smiled at her—the same cute smile that he’d given her the first time she saw him in class. He pointed at the door. “One quick glance and we’re gone. Besides, it’s probably best if you’re not here when Mary gets home. She doesn’t like it when I have friends over.” As he moved toward the closet door, she realized there was no trace of the tears he’d been close to shedding moments before. In fact, his eyes were clear and alert, and he grinned like her sister did when she rode her bike down a steep hill.
Mark put one hand on the doorknob and then paused. With a glance over his shoulder at Suzanne, he said, “I only show this to my friends. But we are friends now… aren’t we?”
Suzanne couldn’t help but nod, though the way the sunlight slanted through the curtains in Mark’s room told her it was way too late for her to be out.
“On second thought,” Mark said as he stepped back. “You open it. It’ll be even cooler that way.” His shoes clicked together at the heels as he stood the way a doorman might stand at attention for a rich lady in a movie. Suzanne felt like some other girl in a dream as she put her hand on the knob. Though she expected it to be cold, the brass was warm from Mark’s hand. She pulled it open.
Inside were glass aquariums, the kind she’d seen in pet stores for lizards or snakes. Three were side-by-side on a shelf, with another three perched on top of those. Each one held a head, in various stages of decomposition. They floated in a clear liquid that looked too thick to be water. She stared at the heads that stared back at her, feeling empty as her brain struggled to make sense of what she saw. The three heads on the bottom row were the farthest gone, with milky orbs for eyes and floating bits of flesh like sediment around the faces. The ones on top were the freshest. She recognized Terrence’s head. It bobbed, frozen in an expression of surprise.
Suzanne opened her mouth to scream, but only a low huh huh huh noise came out. She turned, slowly, dreamily, to look at Mark. He stood where she had last seen him. He wore a feral grin, but now he held an empty aquarium. She hadn’t even heard him move to get it. He held it out to her. “We’re going to need this,” he said. She took the aquarium like a robot, looking down into it with a glassy-eyed gaze that didn’t really see anything at all. ‘Don’t get too messy,’  his mother had said.
“Now the fun part begins.”
Contrary to popular belief, Danielle Davis was not raised by wombats in Pau Pau, New Guinea, though she did own 2 gerbils as a child. She received her MFA from the University of Memphis and has had work published in Fantastic Frontiers Magazine and Whortleberry Press’s Strange Christmas 2012 anthology. She writes under the pseudonym “Danielle Davis,” which happens to be an anagram of her real name, Danielle Davis. Most of her time is spent worrying about the inevitable zombie apocalypse, fidgeting, and being awkward in social situations. You can find her wandering around Tumblr and blogging infrequently.

*

*

No Variableness,

Neither Shadow of Turning

a story by

Scathe meic Beorh

 +
Salem, 1636
The sturdy oaken door opened to the frigid air filled with the scent of burning leaves. The elderly yet alert Goodwife Naylor looked with inquiry at the stranger, but said nothing.
“I am Mister William Hinderall, come from Babworth this week passed. Your name please.”
“Goodwife Naylor.”
“Well met, Goody Naylor. I am newly commissioned Inspector General whose duty be to go from house to house once a month to inquire what strangers have thrust themselves into the town.”
“I see, Mister Hinderall. Well, ye can be assured that little thrusting be done here these days.”
Hinderall winced. He bit his tongue. Surely this woman meant nothing indecent by that remark!
“Yet,” continued the Goodwife, “will thou come in to assure thyself there be nothing here amiss? Mine husband John Naylor the Blacksmith be at home. He prepares fresh fish out in the kitchen while I finish knitting a shawl for the Widow Crabb. Ye would be welcome to sup with us this night, Mister Hinderall.”
“I shall dine with Magistrate Hathorne this evening, thank ye. Now, it being the case that thine husband be at home, I will enter, Goody Naylor,” said the inspector as he stepped across the threshold. With somber ceremony he took his hat from his head and hung it on an ornate hook nailed up just inside the doorway. “Impressive ironwork, though excessively elaborate. My cloak, Goody Naylor?”
“I will take it, Mister Hinderall.”
 “I thank thee.”
“Please to forgive mine eavesdropping, Mister Hinderall,” said Goodman Naylor as he entered the house through a side door of the dwelling. “Do ye have prior warning that House Naylor show hospitality to strangers? Forsooth!
“Nay, Goodman Naylor,” said Hinderall as he turned to study yet more well-wrought iron hooks and tools of the hearth. “‘Tis but my obligation to inquire at every door in Salem. It be the duty of Magistrate Hathorne, by whom  I be employed, to take care of matters of our holy religion. The end of the office of magistrate be, as ye know, godliness. It be the duty, therefore, of Magistrate Hathorne, and of myself by extension, to punish and repress idolatry, blasphemy, heresy, the venting of corrupt and pernicious opinions, open contempt of the word preached, and profanation of the Lord’s Day. Since strangers more oft than not bring with them such outside devilments, my position has been formed of recent to counteract such persuasions.”
“Yet, does not Holy Writ teach us,” said Goodman Naylor, “to be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares?”
“Goodman Naylor!” said Mister Hinderall as he whirled to face his opponent, incensed. “Ye seek to teach me Scripture? Where have ye been schooled in such matters as angels and those who wander in the Name of God?” He took in a deep breath in attempt to relax his anger. “Ye would not know, of course, that I have assisted in directing the new school of theology in Cambridge, Harvard by name, where conversations upon such topics be as commonplace as breakfast idle!”
“No, sir, ye be right. New school, ye say? Good news, that. Nevertheless, I do read, unlike many here in Salem. Be it not the Holy Ghost dwelling within we who have been baptized who teaches us according to the deep things of God?”
“Ye hideth someone here, methinks, Goodman Naylor,” said the inspector as he clenched his teeth and fists, “or a divertive talk on such matters which do lie far above thy station in life would not issue forth from thine heart. Where? Where be the stranger this house doeth hide away! Could it even be the likes of that heretic Roger Williams?”
“We have no stranger here, Mister Hinderall,” said Goodwife Naylor as she gestured to the narrow flight of stairs behind her. “And certainly Mister Williams would not dare be seen in Salem. Thou art more than welcome to discover for thyself.”
With a puff and a huff, Mister Hinderall took exaggerated leaps up the steep, narrow steps. He stomped around in the spacious loft upstairs. He swung open the wardrobe, shifted the bed aside, swished curtains along their sally rods. Nothing. He exhaled like a sea-pig. The Naylors snickered at the foolish man, but regained their composure before he returned.
“Cellar?” he said, red-faced.
“Follow me,” said Goodwife Naylor.
No one of import hid belowground, though a towhead with large blue eyes could be seen afloat in the vicinity of the apple barrel.
“A grandchild, Goody Naylor?”
“Indeed. That be young Habakkuk a’looking at ye.”
“Outbuildings? Kitchen? Horse stable? With a quickness, Goody Naylor! I do not have all day.”
The smokehouse, springhouse, tool shed, icehouse, stable, chicken coop, smithy, and finally the kitchen were shown to the inspector. Nothing.
“Satisfied, I do reckon,” said Hinderall as he reentered, crestfallen, the main abode. “But mark ye my words, Goodman Naylor! I am watching thee and thy wife and house. Let the very shadow of a stranger touch this dwelling hereafter, and both ye and thy guest shall be punished forthwith!”
“Aye, we hear and heed thee, good sir,” said Goodman Naylor as with grace he handed Hinderall his hat and cloak, then saw him to the door.
Outside, the afternoon sun showed then from behind a purpled sky, and lo! the shadow of Inspector Hinderall fell in monstrous size over the threshold of Naylor House. The poor man started, threw his hand to his heart and jumped back so that his silhouette did then touch the earth only, and no more the house. Flustered beyond words, he turned and jogged away.
The following morning, a sojourner, a journeyman blacksmith, came from the Bay Colony to Salem for work. He was welcomed into the Naylor home, with no penalty upon any head for the kindnesses shown him.
*
*

The Junk Man

a story by

David Galef

+

The junk man travels through towns, showing and trading his wares. He can be a middle‑aged man with a salesman’s voice or a boy with a buttercup smile and cowlick. The junk man is an ancient figure, bent over his case of dusts and powders, muttering to himself as he goes from door to door.
The junk man walked until he came to a faded white house with peeling gray trim. A gap-toothed picket fence surrounded a patch of mostly dead grass. An old bulldog rested against a tree stump. The junk man opened the gate and walked up the path. He rang the bell once and waited.
A young woman wearing a tattered orange apron opened the door. Standing on her doorstep was a tall boy in his late teens. He wore a gray sweater and brown slacks and carried a satchel under one arm.
“Excuse me, but I wonder if you’re interested in what I’m selling?” He opened his satchel and took out a spray bottle. “Your name is Dorothy Ogleby, right?”
Dorothy nodded. He must have checked a telephone directory before he came: it was an old trick. Still, she had a long afternoon ahead of her, and she might as well see what this young man had to say. “What are you selling?” She tried to look into his satchel, but he closed it.
He began his pitch. “I’m selling the past: visions of yesterday, old experiences….” He let an embarrassed note creep into his voice. “Anything the customer remembers.”
Dorothy tried not to smile. He was almost handsome, in a crooked sort of way. “All right, then, give me a demonstration.”
“Gladly.” He shook the bottle and pressed the nozzle, enveloping her in a fine green haze. Inside the mist, she seemed to be leaning back and looking upward. As the vapor cleared away, she was smiling like a ten-year-old. Then she let her hands fall with a hurt look. “What kind of trick was that? I don’t know how you did it, but I don’t think that’s very funny.”
“It’s no trick, ma’am. You want a memory, I’ll bring it back for you. Your father, an old classroom, a few lines of verse. What is it you want?”
Dorothy leaned against the doorway, her disapproval gone. “Bring me back to our old house on Allen Street, the one with green shutters and gold trim. We’d sit on the porch and drink lemonade. I saw it again a moment ago.”
The junk man shrugged and lifted the spray bottle again. When the vision was over, he wasted no more time. “Here’s the bottle, Mrs. Ogleby, but I want something in return, some little item, something you may have lying around—may I look inside?”
Dorothy opened the door so fast it hit the wall. “Okay, look around, find something, but I’ll get the bottle, right?”
The teen nodded and smiled. Then he was in the living room, glancing at the souvenirs on the mantel. He reached out for a small brass knob. “Here, I’ll take this.” He showed it to Dorothy for an instant before slipping it into his satchel.
She bit her lip. “Look, why don’t you take something more valuable than that? I mean, how much use can you get out of—oh, you don’t want that.”
He put the bottle in her hand and hefted his satchel. “I’m sorry. This is the only object I can use.”
“All right, go ahead and take it.” Dorothy watched the young man walk down the path with measured, brisk steps. She shut the door and walked back into the living room. The bare spot on the mantel from where the junk man had taken his prize was like a sad eye staring at her. Why, of all the things in the house, had he taken the door-knocker from their old home? She placed the bottle where the knocker had been. It seemed to cast a presence of its own, some hint of a forgotten secret, or a dusty attic window opening onto a cloud-filled sky. She stared at it for some time in the fading afternoon light.
The junk man moved on, skipping three streets of houses before he stopped at another one. In the front yard was a boy playing in a tree, looking down from an overhanging branch.
The junk man was now a middle-aged man with a sandy mustache and a large shopping bag. He approached the tree and called up to the boy. “Come on down, Donnie. I’ve got something to show you.” He reached into his bag and took out a purple stone the size of a walnut. Held up to the light, it showed coils of smoke that curled and twisted about themselves. Donnie reluctantly left his perch and slid down the trunk. “My mom’s not home, and I don’t have any money. Whatcha got, anyway?”
The junk man held out the stone. “I’m giving away wishes, Donnie. The kind you read about in books. You can dream up anything, anything at all.” He placed the stone in Donnie’s hand. “Here, rub on it.”
The boy looked doubtful, so the junk man leaned over and moved Donnie’s hands over the stone. A haze arose and settled about him. He laughed and walked into it. He ran back a few feet and caught an imaginary ball. He waved. He yelled. Then the vapor disappeared and he was left holding the stone. “They’re not here anymore. What happened?”
The junk man smiled. “They were never really here. Only an image, a memory you had.” He pointed to the stone in Donnie’s hands. “You see, it gets smaller each time you use it. It should be good for a while, though.”
“What good is it if they’re not really there?”
“What difference does it make whether they’re real? While it’s working, you can have all the friends you want, people crowding around you…. When it’s over, you can do it again.”
Donnie’s fingers curled around the stone. “How much, mister?”
The junk man appeared to weigh the value as he sized up the boy. “I’m not interested in taking your money—”
“All I got is fifteen cents.”
“What I want is a rubber band or a piece of string, maybe a marble, something like that. In fact, a marble would be just right. You have one in your pocket, don’t you?”
Donnie felt in his pocket and brought out a yellow cat’s eye. “Here,” he said.
“That’s not the one I mean.”
He stuck his hands back in his pockets. “I don’t want to give you the other one. It’s special.”
“Then give back the stone.”
“What’s the matter with the yellow one? All you said was you wanted a marble.” With his hand in his right pocket, he gripped the special blue marble his friend Jake had given him before he moved away. “Here, take your stupid stone! I don’t want it anyway.” He ran for the tree and was soon high up on a branch.
The junk man sighed and put the magic stone back into his bag. He looked up into the branches where Donnie was staring down at him. “That’s all right, I might be back sometime.” He picked up his bag and made his way to the edge of the lawn.
Walking down the street again, the junk man shook his head. Where did they think he got his supplies, anyway? All recollections are based on something: lace from a wedding dress, the door-knocker of an old house, a marble given by a friend. Some people aren’t ready to give those things up, of course. But they all came to him sooner or later. It was simply a matter of time. And what did the junk man want? Hard to say. No one had ever asked him. He looked back at the tree where Donnie was climbing to a higher branch, not looking down. “I’ll be back someday,” he said, nodding. His tone was neither nasty nor kind, merely a flat statement. He watched the boy climb around in the tree for a while longer, and then continued along the street.
The junk man walked until he crossed into a wealthier area with finer homes and bigger dreams. He finally stopped in front of a large brick house set back from the street. It had a winding path with violets along the border. The yard was fenced in, but the junk man walked to the gate and swung it open. A pale face peeked out from a set of heavy green curtains on the second floor. The junk man pursed his lips. He walked up the path, now in the guise of a portly gentleman carrying a leather briefcase. He wore a charcoal gray suit and looked rather important as he walked up the three doorsteps and put down his briefcase.
The junk man knocked at the door.
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David Galef is a shameless eclectic, with over a dozen books in over two dozen directions. They include the novel How to Cope with Suburban Stress (listed by Kirkus as one of the 30 Best Books of 2006), the story collection Laugh Track, a nasty book of poems called Flaws, the children’s picture book Tracks, and a volume of translated Japanese proverbs called Even Monkeys Fall from Trees. His latest book is the short story collection My Date with Neanderthal Woman, which is as odd as it sounds. A professor of English and the creative writing program director at Montclair State University, he is also a humor columnist for Inside Higher Ed.

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Seaweed


a story by

Beth J. Whiting

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Marie told the camp leaders that she wasn’t doing anything this year. No summer camp activities. She brought a suitcase with seven large books so she could read the whole time.
         She got aboard a bus for the two hour drive to camp. When she arrived, the girls in the bunkhouse were giggling and socializing, but soon went off to do camp activities. Marie sat in her lower bunk and read the whole day through.
         The next day, a camp counselor came to Marie’s cabin and told her, “You have to at least go swimming.”
         “What?” Marie moaned and thought for a second. Then she smiled. “Oh no, I didn’t bring a swimming suit!”
         “That’s okay. I brought a few extra.”
         Marie frowned and got into a black suit. She went out to the water to meet up with the other girls.
         Marie descended into the water and almost immediately screamed in fear.
         Something had bitten her. She saw a green creature swim away.
         Marie ran to her camp leader with her bruised and bleeding leg. “I think I got bit by seaweed!”
         “Oh dear,” one of the other camp leaders said. “That old myth again? Go get cleaned up.”
         Marie bandaged her wound and was resting in the bunkhouse an hour later when two men approached her window, eager looks on their faces.
         “Word’s got around that some seaweed bit you.”
         “Yeah.”
         The men looked happy. “I knew it.”
         “It’s a sign that they’re here.”
         “What’s here?”
         “The seaweed creatures, of course. They live underwater, they have sharp teeth. They wreck boats for fun.”
         Marie looked puzzled.
         “There’s evidence. We call them seaweeds. Our mission is to find out about their culture. There hasn’t been a sighting in a year. You’re it. Would you care to give us an interview?”
         Marie felt special.
         “Well, I was under water when I felt something bite me. I looked and a seaweed creature rushed past me.”
         The men listened in awe.
         “We haven’t come that close to the seaweeds.”
         “Please join us at the Seaweed Café. It’s just a mile from here.”
         “Really?”
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         The next day, when she would have been reading, Marie walked on over to the Seaweed Café. There were paintings and blurry photos of seaweed creatures on the wall. A tooth was encased in glass.
         The men now wore name tags and were eating fish.
         “Welcome to the Seaweed Café. Look, it’s the girl who was bitten.”
         “How long have the seaweeds been around?”
         “As long as anyone can tell. They talk like humans. People have heard conversations. They speak English. For some reason they like to attack our boats. We’re not sure why. There have been little seaweeds, adult seaweeds spotted. ”
         “Do you try to hunt them?”
         “We want to study them. We tried to get research teams out here, you know, scientific people. But they laughed at us. They thought we were making it up.”
         “Well, I know you’re not.”
         “Over the years, explorers have captured seaweeds, but they always get away. They’re smart creatures.”
“Wow.”
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         Marie looked at the ocean all day the next day, daydreaming about a culture that lived down there. A whole land of seaweeds. What do they do down there? Do they have school?
         She eventually fell asleep, and when she awoke it was 2 a.m. She walked to the shore. She heard a splash. A tall seaweed climbed out of the water.
         There was also a girl there. A girl from her camp. A pretty girl she had dismissed as a snob: Nana.
         Nana kissed the seaweed.
         Marie quietly walked away.
         She waited until the next day when Nana was putting on makeup in the morning so she could talk with her alone.
         “I know about you and the seaweed.”
         “Who told you?” Nana asked, frightened.
         “I saw you myself. Just how did you get to know such a creature?”
         “I was alone in a boat and he attacked me. We got to know each other, and I’ve been meeting up with him for three summers.”
         “Do you have any other boyfriends?”
         “Yes, but they don’t count much. I don’t care for the ones at school.”
         “What do you love about him?”
         “His heart. He’s a simple creature. They only attack boats for pranks. They’re actually a very nice, sophisticated culture.”
         “How do I get to know them?”
         “You can’t. They’re shy about the outside world. They know people go hunting for them and take snapshots.”
         “Can I get to know them?” Marie said, trying again.
         “No.”
*
         The next day Marie went to the men again.
         They were complaining about the seaweeds.
         “They never interact with other creatures.”
         “That’s not true.”
         Maybe it was out of spite for not getting to know one, but Marie told her tale about Nana.
         The men stood there amazed.
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         Word got around, and soon Nana was ordered to pack and go home. She wasn’t allowed to return to the camp again.
         She stormed out of her cabin when her parents arrived early to take her home. In front of everyone she declared, “I’m in love with him! There’s nothing you can do about it. I’m 18. I can move to this place if I want!”
         “Who will hire you around here?”
         The café workers stepped in and said, “She can have a job with us.”
*
         So Nana worked at the Seaweed Café. Sometimes the seaweed would step in shyly and ask for his wife.
            The men treated him like a hero. It was the talk of the town for a while, and even made tabl