(after William Gedney’s ‘Cornett Girls, Kentucky, 1964’)
The man had been staying at the Couchs’ and taking photos here and there. Linda had seen him at the gas station, the large camera hanging from his neck, and wondered what it would take to get him to photograph her. She couldn’t ask, could she?
Sometimes she’d brush and brush her hair, borrow her mother’s lipstick, and pretend in front of the mirror that she was a model for the Sears catalogue, some man taking her picture in one outfit after another. She’d be good at it: she could walk with a book balanced on her head.
A few days later, before lunch, she was standing with Laura and Lucy in the kitchen. Laura and Lucy were talking about whether Momma was going to go to work now Daddy’d been laid off, but Linda wasn’t listening, just staring out the window, not really thinking of anything, when she heard the loud snap of a camera.
They all turned around. Momma said, ‘This man’s been takin’ pictures. He asked if he could take some round the house, an’ I said yes.’
The man nodded slowly. Linda suppressed a groan: her back had been to the camera, and her hair was all scraggly, unbrushed since the night before. She hurried past the man and Momma to the bathroom, to make herself nice real quick, and go back and ask for a proper picture. He’d put it right, surely. Wasn’t that what a photograph was for?
CARRIE ETTER has published three collections of poetry, most recently Imagined Sons (Seren, 2014), shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry by The Poetry Society. Her first pamphlet of fictions, Hometown (which this story is taken from), is available from V. Press here. She is a Reader in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University.
We were driving north, two hours in, when we started playing a game. The one where you have to go through the alphabet based on letters found on highway signs, license plates, billboards. I was winning. My letter was P, father was on E, mother was on M, brother was on H. It was a desolate stretch, nothing but thickets of bushes and power lines. Suddenly a board entered the frame, white background, with text that was handwritten and faded.
I sat up and squinted my eyes. We were all staring, trying our hardest to distinguish the lines and arches. Suddenly PRUNES materialised and I yelled ‘P for Prunes’ and father yelled ‘E for Prunes’ and we hit something, tumbled four times down a ditch, looped around a pole. Father was in mud a few yards away, mother was in glass. My seatbelt held me in the air, otherwise I might have fallen right on brother. Brother and I looked at each other and knew.
It’s been a few years. Psychiatrists have called it different things. Brother and I ride bikes around the neighborhood. Brother pulls a wagon behind his bike, the kind you normally put a child in. We use it for groceries. The buses take us most places in the city, but it takes twice as long to get there. I’m late a lot. We mostly walk places. I’ve gone through five pairs of sneakers this year.
Sometimes mothers of children at school will pull up next to us in their big, expensive machines and offer us a ride. We politely decline. They insist until someone in the backseat, maybe a classmate of mine, maybe a classmate of brother’s, whispers a reminder or a rumor that causes the mother to give us a pained look before slowly pulling away, the street rocks crunching under their rubber tires. I search their license plates for a Q.
Lauren Schmidt is an MFA candidate in the creative writing program at CalArts. She lives in Los Angeles with her partner and their fish, Versace.
He was to take only what was his, not theirs. In the quiet house he swaddled in blankets: a framed Lenny Bruce poster; teak decking from an old houseboat; a tin Hatuey beer sign.
He nestled the final bundle into his trunk and entered one last time to survey the half-empty exhibition of his making. Rectangles of seemingly fresh paint appeared to hang on nail holes. A contrast from faded walls streaked dingy by little hands.
Stain was worn from the trim where she used to lean and talk at him through his office doorway.
What remained: her aunt’s strange painting of cats in a gilded frame; oil streaks on canvas evoking tree trunks; family portrait in black and white (two laughing sons, their mother, and his own, younger face).
He locked the door. He pushed his key through the slot as she’d asked, and slid into the night.
MARK MAYNARD is the winner of the 2015 Nevada Writers Hall of Fame Silver Pen Award. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University, Los Angeles. His linked short story collection, Grind, was published by Torrey House Press in 2012, and has been selected as the 2016-2017 Nevada Reads book. He is currently the Program Coordinator for Nevada Humanities, focusing on bringing Pulitzer Prize winning authors and journalists to events throughout the state. He lives in Sparks, Nevada.
I meet Ford at the type of house party in Paris where no one has really been invited. Everyone knows someone who knows someone. Nico, my Franco-British friend, is throwing his house-warming, most likely to make us all jealous that he’s found a one-bedroom near the Lower Canal. The apartment has a real oven, which he points out as soon as I walk in and toss my coat on his bed. ‘You can cook for me now,’ he says with a wink.
He leads me to the living room, where people are swilling their rosé around in their glasses on the couch and smoking at the window. I peer out the window, holding my breath so as not to inhale the smoke. It balloons like speech bubbles from their mouths.
I can just make out a sliver of the Canal from here, one of the rusty green bridges crossing its waters. There is a couple standing on top of the bridge, taking pictures, posing, probably staring up at Nico’s window and wondering what Parisians who live here do. ‘Do you think there’s a party going on up there?’ I imagine they say to each other as the boats sink down onto the locks beneath them and disappear.
Nico taps my shoulder and I turn around from the window to see him standing with a blond boy behind me. There’s a gleam in Nico’s eye, like he is out to pull me away from thinking or looking, both things he says I do too much. He gives the boy a little shove towards me and then disappears into the crowd. He has said before that introductions are beneath him.
I move in to give the boy the bises, but he shoots out his hand instead.
‘Lucy,’ I say.
‘Rutherford,’ he says. For a second, I think he’s fucking with me, trying to make some commentary on this party, the abundance of non-ironic moustaches and black and white striped shirts there are in the room. He just nods though, confirming it. ‘But I go by Ford.’
I look him up and down, though I try to do it through my peripheral vision, as I glance to my right at everyone else. His hair is dirty blond and messy; his eyes are bright blue. He has darker scruff on his face and is wearing a brown tweed jacket, with jeans that are cuffed at the ankles so that his brown loafers are entirely on display. If he cleaned up more, he’d look entirely Aryan. But right now, he strikes me as a Brooklyn transplant. Someone who bumped into a similarly dressed guy on the metro and was ‘down to hang’ at some Canal party on a Friday night.
We stand in silence, the low din of French around us, and I stop myself from staring at how perfectly cuffed his jeans are.
‘Can I tell you a little lie?’ he asks.
‘Your real name isn’t Rutherford?’
‘Nope, that it is. That it is.’
He pours me a glass of white wine. We make our way into the party and stand near the couch. After my first few months in Paris, the couch was always the first place I headed at a party. I had observed enough by then to know that the counter was always too crowded and there would be no beer pong table to gather around. The couch was the best place to go to accidentally fall into a conversation and pretend you belonged.
Ford clears his throat. ‘I was gonna say earlier – I’m really good in party situations. Basically an expert at this kind of thing.’
‘What kind of thing would that be?’ I ask.
‘You know, the kind of thing where you’ve been in a city for two days. You get lost on the metro, and then a really friendly guy starts talking to you in rapid French and then you think there’s some emergency on the subway and so you respond in English that you don’t speak French. He tells you that you’re cute and invites you to a party in some neighborhood you’ve never even heard of. And then you show up and are like, “Yeah no big deal, this is totally normal.” That kind of thing?’
I look at him again and notice this time that his fingers are dancing on his upper thigh. ‘That’s a pretty big lie,’ I say. ‘It’s funny because I’d say from first glance that you look right at home here.’
I think he looks pleased. ‘I’d say the same about you.’
I smile back. I’m not dressed right for this party. I’m starting to realise that I’m not really ever dressed right for anything. I’m wearing jeans and black flats and a white fake silk-collared shirt, like I’m going to a paralegal interview. My thin, light brown hair is tied up in a bun with strands poking out, but not poking out in the right places, the unruly kind of bun that every French girl has mastered. The smoke from everyone else near the window is starting to make me light-headed. I haven’t been able to hold my breath since meeting Ford.
Later on in the night, we head back to the window so Ford can smoke a cigarette he’s bummed off of Nico. I look out to try to find the people standing on the bridge, to see if they’re staring up at the apartment. They’re still there, but they’re just looking out over the Canal, the girl is putting away her phone. Even from here, I can see how bright their faces are and I wish I knew how to draw so that I could sketch them. I point them out to Ford and ask him what he thinks. Wouldn’t they be great subjects for something about contentment? A sketch? A poem?
He takes a swig of wine. ‘I don’t think they look that content. I think they’re waiting for something.’
Ford tells me he came to Paris after graduating from Princeton because his dad is a British citizen, so he had the passport, and he wanted to start taking his photography and collaging seriously. That, ‘And fuck around for a while,’ after the intensity of being at an Ivy League for four years.
He talks about Princeton and growing up in San Francisco like they are decidedly removed from himself now. He says things like, ‘Yeah, back in college’ and ‘God, I don’t miss that about SF.’ I don’t tell him that I call my parents every night after I get back from teaching English at the university.
I have started spending Wednesday and Saturday evenings with him, sometimes Sunday afternoons, too. Usually, we meet at his place because mine is 12 square meters and I don’t have a table. We talk about books I’ve read and drink too much red wine.
Ford lives in the 10th, between Gare du Nord and South Pigalle, in an area just sketchy enough to make it cool. His photography and collages are pasted all along the white walls of his studio. Black men and white men glower at the camera in fedoras. French words like ‘insolite’ are pasted next to stock photos of cacti that are stitched on top of the Buttes-Chaumont park. I nod when he shows me a new one he’s developed of a dog peeing on the Rue Saint-Honoré and tell him that it’s ‘quite interesting.’ I think it’s the reaction he’s looking for.
I pull out my fragmented knowledge on the origins of California rap or how the Kayapo tribe in Brazil believes that a photograph can steal their souls. He smiles when I tell him I will never be able to take a sexy pull of a cigarette and tilt my head like a French woman because I am afraid of smoking and am not sure how to make sexy head gestures. I am aware that I more ‘on’ with Ford in our conversations than I am with Nico, or really with anyone since I came to Paris. Or maybe I am just trying to be more on, I will ask myself later.
When we’re done talking and drinking, he walks me to the door. He asks if I need to be walked home because there’s a sketchy area on the way from his place. I tell him no, that I don’t spook easily, referring to myself like a 19th century horse.
Ford gives me the bises and says, as always, ‘Until next time.’
I walk the 15 minutes back to my house with my cheeks puffed out, filling them with air and then exhaling it all at once. I tell myself I do this because it makes me warmer. The wind is brisk and I feel more sturdy bracing it with fat, air-filled cheeks.
I think I do it because of the way my breath sounds when I’ve exhaled, a soft P. I focus on that sound. I pass a homeless man near the ATM, then three tabacs with groups of older guys standing around outside smoking. If I focus on the P sound, I stop replaying in my mind the stupid things I said to Ford that night or how his hair was scruffed up or how his thigh touched mine, with a pressure that was light but firm, when we sat on the couch. I puff out my cheeks and count the Ps until I am home.
‘What brought you to Paris?’ Ford asks me one Saturday night at his place. We’re drinking red wine on his beige sofa bed and I’m trying not to spill it.
It’s the first time he’s raised the question since we met a month ago, and I want to say something exciting, like I followed an older Parisian professor here who I had an affair with in college. Or that my family name is really ‘de la Roche’ but we changed it to ‘Goldstein’ to hide our French aristocratic roots after the Revolution.
I tell him the truth: ‘My college offered an exchange to teach here for a year as a lectrice at the Sorbonne and I just ended up staying on after, to keep teaching and living here.’
He takes a long sip of his wine. ‘You didn’t come here to write. Or to do something creative?’
‘No,’ I say. ‘What gave you that impression?’
‘I guess because all of your friends are in the art scene.’
I start laughing at that. ‘No, they’re not really.’ Nico works in an art gallery as a glorified errand boy and gets me invites to silly vernissages that we go to for the free wine.’
Ford looks serious. That slight reflection of light in his eyes is gone. ‘But you talk about literature all the time,’ he says. He crosses his arms and sinks deeper into the couch. ‘It’s just, you strike me like you’re here for some reason.’
‘I am,’ I say. ‘I wanted to become fluent in French. I want to be somewhere new. I was sick of home, of D.C., this was a great opportunity.’ I wave my hand around in the air and smile, like it should be a given.
‘You know what I mean,’ Ford says.
‘No, I don’t.’
‘It’s just… Paris isn’t a place you can be without a hunger, you know? Especially as an American. There has to be something pulling you here.’
‘And you don’t think I have something pulling me here?’ I ask him. My voice is cold, distanced from myself.
He scrapes a hand through his scruff of blond hair. ‘I don’t know, Lucy. I don’t know, there’s just some pulse that I can’t find in you.’
My heart is beating too fast and I can feel my body tense up, my thighs and shoulders tighten.
He looks thoughtful for a second, looking down at his big fingers. ‘Like I couldn’t quite figure out why something hadn’t happened between us, you know? Why I just never felt the urge to take this further? But I think that’s why.’
Later, I will run through the things I could have said back to him: ‘Maybe it’s because you haven’t been looking?’ or ‘What the fuck do you think you know about my life?’. I laugh lightly until the moment is broken. Ford starts talking about his art, showing me the photographs he got developed yesterday.
My head is filled with wine when I get off of the couch an hour later and say goodnight. He doesn’t offer to walk me home.
A week later, on Saturday night, Ford texts me to hang out. I pace the ten steps of my apartment. What will keep him interested? What will make him feel bad? I draft and redraft texts. ‘No big deal, but I’d like some space and not to hang out for a while,’ I write. My screen flashes blue quickly with his reply. ‘No worries,’ he writes and then a second later, ‘I understand.’
I curl up on my bed with my phone in my hand. I wonder if Ford is sitting at home, thinking about what he said to me. What does he understand? Is he plotting something, some follow-up text, to show that he’s sorry, that he at least still wants to be friends?
No, I tell myself. He’s out with some French girl he met at some other party. Leading her back to his place, letting her ruffle his hair, pinning her against his sofa bed as he unfolds it, whispering in her ear, ‘I wanted you since the moment I saw you, smoking at the window.’
I spend the week sitting on my tiny couch, rereading his text and trying to calm myself down, trying not to cry. I call my friends from home, asking their advice, then retreating from it, changing the subject to ask what D.C. is like right now, if it’s true that all the guys there are Republicans.
I keep myself together while teaching at the university. I try to smile in the dimly-lit classroom, but one of the Parisian-born English teachers pulls me aside after class and tells me I look terrible. ‘Aw pauvre Lucy,’ she says. ‘You need some rest. You just look so…’ she snaps her fingers, searching for the English word, “haggard, that’s it,’ and she smiles brightly then too.
The next weekend, Nico forces me to meet him for coffee in his neighborhood, near the Canal. ‘And brush your hair,’ he tells me, before hanging up.
The Canal looks muckier than usual, a sickly green, and I try to ignore the unease, almost nausea, that pulls at my stomach as I cross the bridge, on my way to the tiny coffee shop on the other side.
Nico pulls me into a large hug when he sees me, tells me that I’ve brought out his British side.
‘The British hug?’ I ask him and he smiles and orders us two cappuccinos.
We sit down in wooden chairs across a low coffee table. The only other options are the communal tables with baskets of fruit and skinny people laughing over their cups of green tea. The chairs are uncomfortable and I’m acutely aware of the rods pushing into my spine. Nico gives me a once-over, biting his cheek.
‘What happened with Ford?’ he asks.
He has heard the main signposts already. I had texted Nico every time I was walking home from Ford’s: ‘He asked me what I’m doing for Christmas break – that means he wants to see me before I leave, right?’, ‘He lit candles tonight and played jazz while he showed me his photos!’, ‘He invited me to dinner at his place with a Spanish couple. That’s kind of like a double date, no?’
‘Nothing happened,’ I say. My face is blank. I tell him the details of the night.
Nico is silent for a while after I’ve finished. He has gelled his hair back today and is wearing an outrageously long scarf that looks great on him.
‘Luce,’ he says. He locks his eyes on mine. They are deep brown and sparkling and I wonder if part of him is loving this, if somehow my unhappiness fills a longing of his to be the brightest, if he draws energy from my misery. ‘Look, Luce, you are beautiful and intelligent and fucking scarily observant. You know this. And I’ve told you these things a hundred times.’
‘Well, maybe I need to hear it again right now.’ I smile at him.
‘No, you don’t,’ he says. He is speaking quietly now. ‘Because he was kind of right, when he said that.’
I open my mouth to protest, but he pats my arm across the table, silencing me.
‘I’m not saying he’s not a little shit, because he is. But look, Lucy, you’ve been here two years now and you keep talking about everything you want to do here. How you want to do this or that and it’s just like, there is some other version of you, in some other dimension, who is doing all those things she wants to do. Who is like, I don’t know a cultural critic or a literature professor or a writer, who’s just out there killing it. Not hanging out at lame parties with me or wasting time on self-absorbed shits like Ford.’
Nico squeezes my hand and I nod at him and sip my cappuccino and I keep nodding as he keeps squeezing my hand. We both know he is right.
If it is true that there are multiple versions of ourselves in other dimensions, that an opportunity or moment is never really lost, then there is some version of me who left Nico’s party that Friday night and walked down to the Canal, to the green bridge. The couple are still standing there, though the girl has now put away her phone and they are pointing up at Nico’s window, even though it’s far away. I sit on a bench, right below, looking up at their faces, listening in to their conversation.
‘I wonder what parties are like here?’ the girl asks. Her face is shining, her lips are pink, I can tell that just asking the question and waiting for his response excites her. But the guy doesn’t respond. He grabs her hand from the pocket of her blue coat and places it on the railing of the bridge, in his own. They stay like that for a while, looking out over the water.
I sit below them, watching, until they leave, and even then, I stay on the bench and look out over the water and wonder why he didn’t answer her. I pull out a leftover napkin from my purse and a pen and draw their hands on top of the cold iron of the bridge, her shining face, his straight back.
I draw until my own hands turn cold and I am no longer aware that there is still music playing, that somewhere nearby, there are twinkling lights and girls pressing their arms against boys near windows, inhaling clouds of smoke and exhaling promises in raspy tones. Somewhere far away, somewhere forgotten, Nico is throwing his house-warming party.
ANNIE PROSSNITZ grew up in Chicago and moved to Paris in 2013. She is a graduate of Stanford University, where she studied Creative Writing and History. Her poetry has been published in The Bastille, Paris Lit Up, and Two Words For. You can follow her on Twitter @AProssnitz
Two weeks later, Albi and Rachel are in the church a mile from their home, the same one where Saul had been christened. They are facing the front, not looking or touching one another. There’s a constant pull at Albi’s chest, as if the ground is drawing him to it. Behind them, friends and family are reluctantly present, everyone attending a service that no one wants to be there for. The singing to hymns is lacklustre, and the hard stone floor and the walls refuse to allow any sound to reverberate. Heads are repeatedly shaken in disbelief. A terrible shame, they’d said. A waste.
Albi and Rachel can’t stop staring at the tiny pale wooden coffin lying on a black wooden frame by the altar.
He’d been at work when it happened. Rachel said she’d only been away from Saul a second. Had gone to get a towel from the airing cupboard. She was about to put him in the bath, but when she came back to the bedroom he was gone.
She ran to the bathroom, calling out his name, but he wasn’t there. Then she heard the tumbling, over and over, and she rushed to the stairs.
He keeps telling himself that if he’d been home, it would never have happened. He would have made sure the gate on the landing was secure. He shouldn’t think like that, he knows, but it’s hard.
The tap dripping in the bathroom was the only sound in the house, echoing loudly, it seemed, around the empty rooms. The water was still there when Albi arrived home; it didn’t feel right to empty it, to let it wash away.
She told him all this. He went over it with her, finding more questions to ask as he did so, to make sure he’d understood everything correctly, that nothing had been missed.
She still refuses to walk beyond the spot at the bottom of the stairs where she found Saul, and so will not go upstairs. There’s no mark but every day she takes a bowl of soapy water and a brush, and scrubs at that part until her fingers are raw and the carpet is thin and pale.
Albi made a half-hearted attempt to persuade her to come back to their bed, but she shook her head, and she sleeps on the sofa in the living room, although she doesn’t really sleep. She says that when she closes her eyes, the images become more vivid, and she has to sit up and wait for her heart to stop pounding. There’s constant movement inside her chest, as if always on the verge of something imminent, unable to settle.
It was the day after the funeral that Albi first came down in the night, tying his dressing gown around him, the cold air at his ankles like a puppy, and found Rachel in the half-light standing there, silent, and staring at the picture. There was a faint recognition as he approached and stood next to her, both facing Saul just as they had the day before. Neither spoke. Most nights they meet here now, Saul’s smiling face oblivious to their condition.
He remembers when they first got the picture.
‘Careful,’ said Rachel. ‘You might damage it.’
Albi was holding his penknife just above the package. He’d been searching for a way in, looking for even the smallest gap, but it appeared to be fully sealed, as if it could be thrown into the sea and still not get wet.
About three feet long and two feet wide, and with defined edges making it a perfect rectangle, the package was wrapped in what appeared to be light brown paper, but it felt much stronger than that. It was smooth and had no hint of a blemish anywhere.
Saul pulled himself up off the carpet and toddled up to Albi.
‘Da, da,’ he said.
Rachel picked him up, and he wriggled excitedly in her arms.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Daddy’s doing it, isn’t he? Isn’t he funny?’
Albi smiled at them both, stroked Saul’s round, soft cheek. He said ‘Da, Da’ to most things but it was nice to think he meant him. Albi brought the knife to the paper and Rachel dipped her head closer to watch. He could hear her breathing quicken as his knife lightly touched the surface and made a small incision.
He carried on, slowly, cutting all the way round until finally he reached the beginning again. As the paper released, Rachel let out an audible sigh.
Albi slipped the paper off, letting it fall to the ground like a discarded shirt, and held up the picture, admiring it. It was a photograph of Saul, taken only a month ago on his first birthday. Dressed in a shirt and jeans, he was laughing, his eyes wide and bright, glistening. They’d chosen the smooth wooden frame at the photographer’s. It looked perfect for the picture. Each birthday would be special, but they wanted to remember the first. There was something more memorable about the first.
He lowered it to show to Rachel and Saul. The baby held out his hand, mashing his fat fingers towards it as if he recognised himself. Albi hung it up in the middle of the wall opposite the fireplace, and stepped back.
‘Yes, that’s you,’ said Rachel in a singsong voice, holding Saul against her chest as they all gazed at the baby in the picture. He kicked his legs to break free, and she put him down. Albi stroked Saul’s head, his hair fine and soft like tissue paper as the boy walked unsteadily for a few feet and then plopped down on his bottom before getting up again.
When Albi sees Rachel in the mornings, before he goes to work, she is normally dressed and is sitting on the edge of the sofa, the blankets and pillows neatly folded in a pile on the floor. Her fingers are often red from cleaning the carpet or from picking at them. She scours each millimetre for bits of loose flesh to rip from her fingers. He softly asks her not to do it but she ignores him.
Before, Rachel had been carrying a bit of extra weight, not much, just a little heaviness in the hips, but now her whole body seems drained and deflated. Her hair, auburn and in a bob, has sunk, almost flush to her head. It is rarely washed. Her skin, once full of colour and life, is now pale and almost translucent.
She is in the kitchen having a wash in the sink, and Albi is alone with Saul in the living room.
‘Hello,’ he whispers. ‘Hello, little man.’
He’s sure he hears a giggle. Albi’s heart lifts and he steps towards the picture, examining the boy, his hand tracing his rounded cheeks, his lips.
He turns towards Rachel to see if she heard it too, but she is oblivious. Through the open door he sees her dry her face on a towel, and then gaze out of the window overlooking the small yard.
Was that really him, or did he just imagine his son laughing? He can hear him so clearly in his memory that it might have been just that. But it sounded like Saul was actually here. Albi looks again at the picture and feels a lightness, only slight, somewhere in the far distance.
Rachel doesn’t need to know about this; it would only upset her. Best if it’s his and Saul’s secret. Something they share together. He’ll have more time alone with Saul later.
Albi walks to the kitchen to make some tea. He thinks about Saul in the picture as the kettle boils. He can hear the boy’s laughter above the rumble. He smiles at the memory.
As he fills the pot, Rachel says, ‘He would have been playing there.’ She gestures to the yard. ‘Another six months or a year?’
He’s brought back down again sharply. She’s said so little recently that he isn’t sure it’s her at first. Her voice sounds odd. Thin. There’s so little behind it.
His arms feel heavy as he places his hands on her shoulders and tells her it’ll be alright.
But he doesn’t want to hear this, about what should have been.
She slips away from him and as she leaves the room, the faint aroma of Johnson’s Baby Powder reaches him. He sniffs the air and snatches a glance towards Saul in the picture, but the smell has gone.
He finds her facing Saul.
‘He seems too small for the picture,’ she says. Her arms are crossed, and her head slightly cocked to one side. ‘Did we get the wrong size frame?’
He follows her gaze.
‘Don’t know. We may have become so used to it, he appears smaller?’
‘Maybe you’re right.’
He wonders whether he is. But oddly, it seems right for Saul. He lives there now. He doesn’t want to be cramped.
She plays with her fingers and then returns to the kitchen. Albi watches her pour herself some tea that he knows she’ll only have a couple of sips from at most.
He turns back to the picture and his heart leaps to see that Saul has moved a little and is now facing him straight on, looking directly into Albi’s eyes. There’s a child’s voice in the air all around him, like mist. He steps back, at once frightened and excited. He holds onto himself. What is he thinking? The boy can’t move. Rachel’s footsteps interrupt him, and when his eyes return to the picture, Saul is back in his original position. Albi covers his face with both hands, a weariness descending on him like heavy snow.
That evening, he hears her downstairs as he lies in bed. Normally only occasional muffled sobs break the silence, but tonight there’s movement, the sound of rummaging that goes on intermittently for what seems like hours.
‘You okay?’ he calls down from the landing as it approaches midnight.
There’s no answer at first, but then she replies, saying she’s alright. ‘Go back to bed.’
It carries on but he’s lost in his thoughts of Saul and soon he drifts off.
In the morning, Albi stops by the picture on his way to the kitchen. Saul is now in a crawling position, and has one arm slightly raised off the ground, his fat fingers reaching out to Albi who presses his own to Saul’s and smiles. Albi remains like this for minutes, realising that he was right earlier: Saul had moved. Then there’s a clink of crockery coming from the kitchen; he waves to Saul and joins Rachel.
He’s surprised by a cup of tea waiting for him on the table. It’s lukewarm but he doesn’t mention it to her. It’s good that she’s made it. She asks if he wants some toast but he says he hasn’t time. The familiar smell of the grill warming up, made unfamiliar, envelops the kitchen. It’s homely but doesn’t seem to belong. She says she might go out today, just for a walk.
‘That’s good,’ Albi says. He’s pleased, really he is.
There appears to be a change in her. There’s more life there, a glimmer at least. He wonders whether she expects him to kiss her goodbye, like he used to, but he doesn’t, and doesn’t finish his tea.
He hates leaving Saul, especially now, and hesitates briefly at the front door before heading off to work.
He thinks about him all day and can’t wait to see him again later in the picture. That evening, as he approaches the house, the front door opens. Rachel is there at the threshold, and she beckons him in. She takes his hand before he can object and leads him straight to the living room. Albi stops and releases his hold from her as he gazes at the wall. A sharp pain contracts in his chest, as if a cold hand has squeezed his heart. Surrounding the larger, original picture, there are what must be at least fifty other pictures of Saul in varying sizes scattered all over the wall: when he was first born, held by Rachel in hospital and wrapped in a white blanket; Saul on the carpet, his legs in the air; in his buggy in the park, wearing his pale blue hat in the summer, his eyes squinting against the bright light; crawling along the carpet.
‘What’s all this?’ he says. His head feels light and his heart is pounding.
‘I was looking for these photos last night,’ she says. I found loads in the boxes behind the sofa.
‘Christ,’ he says. ‘Look at them all.’
‘He’s still living, you see. In these pictures. We can see him every day, just like we used to.’
He gazes at the picture in the centre. Saul is in his original position. He waits for him to move again but nothing happens. Albi holds himself still and listens but Saul makes no sound.
‘What have you done?’ says Albi quietly. Panic has thinned his voice.
‘I thought you’d like it,’ she says. She takes Albi’s hand again but he snatches it away and examines the pictures. There, all Saul’s emotions are together. A whole, short life reflected on one wall. Yes, he knows he should like it. He should love to see his boy, but she’s lost the Saul in the centre, the one who speaks to him, moves for him. None of these other pictures have the boy’s essence, the magic that is him.
Just when he’s found him again, she’s lost him. Just like before.
He feels a rush in his chest.
‘No I don’t like it,’ he says. ‘You’ve just made it worse.’
She shakes her head and her whole body slumps.
In the silence, he doesn’t turn to her, but can feel her looking at him.
‘You know it was an accident,’ she says quietly. ‘You do believe me, don’t you?’
He stares at the picture, willing for some movement. But there’s no change. After a long pause, he says, ‘Yes I do. I just want an explanation.’
She raises her hand, as if to start saying something, but lets it drop. ‘Albi,’ she says, but he doesn’t respond. She begins to cry, quietly, broken only by the word, ‘Sorry.’
Nothing has changed. He’s asked her repeatedly but she’s said nothing that makes it any different, any better. He’s longed for something, but she’s never offered anything that alters why it happened, nothing to truly explain it.
Slowly, he raises his chin and stares at the pictures. Saul is smiling back at him in that familiar pose. That beautiful, playful smile. But there’s nothing else. The magic has gone.
He thinks back to when he found them. She was sitting on the floor at the bottom of the stairs. He remembers the warm sight of her cradling him in her arms, but only vaguely thinking it was an odd place to do so. He didn’t realise at first that anything was wrong. She seemed serene, her hand lightly stroking Saul wrapped in a towel on her lap as she gently rocked him, just like when he was first born.
He hears Rachel’s footsteps but doesn’t turn to her, and doesn’t call her back as she reaches the front door. Once she’s closed it behind her, he examines the picture, urging Saul to move over and over again, before finally climbing the stairs.
He’s not sure for how long she has been away, but darkness has settled since and he hears the creak of the door marking her return. He’s been playing with Saul; the time has just gone.
He listens to the clock’s ticks in between her steps along the hallway towards him. She stops and calls out his name. There’s a long pause as she waits for a reply that doesn’t come, before moving to the living room.
She doesn’t turn on the light, and doesn’t notice him as he watches her from his new vantage point. She perches on the edge of a seat on the sofa in the corner of the room and holds herself still, as if listening for noises in the house, but of course there aren’t any.
There’s a thin strip of silver from a gap in the curtain that cuts through the darkness towards him. He can’t tell from where he is but he imagines it reaches half way up the wall, threading a route through the bank of pictures to just below the larger one in the centre.
She slowly raises her head to the picture, then stands up and steps over to it. He recoils, waiting for the shock in her face when she sees him there, but there’s no sign of recognition, and he quickly realises that she can’t see him, the way he could see Saul. He watches her trace her finger round the line of Saul’s chubby cheeks, and smile. As she steps back to view all the pictures together, Saul giggles and Albi puts his finger to his lips to quieten him. But of course, she doesn’t hear, she can’t.
She turns away and calls Albi’s name as she heads towards the door. She’s out of view now, and he kisses Saul and holds him tightly, never wanting to be parted again. He’s missed him so much.
He wishes he could forgive her. But what else could he have done?
The click of her shoes on the floor reverberates around the house. Not long now, he tells himself. He squeezes Saul tighter and listens. He imagines her turning on the light and running over to his body at the bottom of the stairs. She’ll cry out, and at that moment, he’ll throw Saul up and catch him just like he used to.
JAMES WALL's work has previously been published in the Best British Short Stories 2013 anthology, Tears in the Fence, Unthology 6, Prole, Lakeview International Journal of Literature and Arts, The View from Here, Long Story, Short Journal, and in Matter Magazine. He was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize in 2010, and has an MA in Creative Writing from Sheffield Hallam University. His novel, The Waxwing, is currently under consideration with a number of agents.
Ma makes us swear to be civil. My brother Kit is nine days out of the treatment facility in Delray Beach, which Ma paid for out of her savings. He’s all dried out, she says.
I get to her apartment first, and together we move all of her bottles – ‘for the guests’ – into one cabinet and lock it.
I’m sitting on the couch when Kit’s taxi pulls up. My niece is with him. She’s wearing a pink dress and when Ma sees it she lets out a little squeal.
‘So pretty,’ she says. ‘Isn’t Jackie pretty? You look like a little princess.’
Jackie doesn’t say anything. She just looks at the ground and tugs at the hem of her dress. I give my brother a hug and when he lets go I have to make an effort not to look down at the stump where his hand used to be. The angry pucker of scar tissue. It’s the reason he isn’t in jail; since the only person he hurt was himself, all they did was pull his license and make him attend the meetings.
Kit hands Ma a bottle of champagne with a dollar store ribbon on it and her smile gets all screwed up. The first thing she does when we get inside is tear off the foil with her teeth and pour it down the sink.
‘Chrissakes, Ma, it’s just champagne,’ he says, but his voice is soft, diminished. He walks over to the locked cabinet and gives the handle a half-hearted tug with one finger and snorts, like it’s all just a joke he’s heard before.
I ask Jackie how she’s doing in school, but when she answers me, she does it with her hand. She holds it out beside her and makes a little hand puppet, and that’s when I notice the eyes drawn on in pen.
Kit sees her doing it and slaps her on the knuckles. ‘Knock it off.’
Things are going fine until Ma brings out the Scrabble. She’s always been good at it, way better than either of us. She’s dominating the board and Kit is staring at his letters with his brow furrowed like he’s studying some newly discovered species. When it’s his turn, he puts down STEVE.
‘Double word score,’ he says. ‘That’s sixteen points for me.’
‘Names don’t count,’ I tell him. Right away I regret saying anything, regret not being able to turn off that little part of me that can’t ever just let things be.
‘It’s in the rules,’ is all I can say. I give a lame shrug. Kit shoves away from the table. The legs of his chair screech and the Scrabble board upends and tiles go skittering across the hardwood. He stands there for a moment, chewing his lip, like he’s not sure whether he should apologise or not. He says something under his breath that I don’t catch and walks off down the hallway. Ma flinches when the bathroom door slams.
He’s in the bathroom for a long time, and when he comes back we have to pretend he doesn’t smell like a distillery. He’s brought along some hidden stash, a flask or one of those things people use to sneak their booze into a concert or a stadium.
Jackie makes her hand puppet. Her nose wrinkles up. ‘Daddy smells,’ she says to her hand. A conspiratorial whisper.
My brother’s eyes narrow. The muscles in his jaw are twitching and his face gets all red and boiled-looking. Jackie’s hand puppet says something else and he brings the stump of his hand down hard on the countertop. He’s crouched down in front of her, so close their noses are almost touching.
‘Knock that shit off.’ He says each word very slowly, pushes them between his teeth like he’s chewing them up and spitting them out.
But Jackie doesn’t stop. She looks right at him, holds his gaze and keeps talking. And then my brother has his good hand on her shoulder, and he’s jerking her back and forth like he’s trying to shake something loose inside her, trying to reconnect some faulty wire. Jackie is looking at him and the tears are coming now.
Ma is shouting in the background. I wedge myself in between them and then I’ve got her hand and I don’t let go until we’re outside and in my car. I don’t know where we’re going. Away. Anywhere else.
I make myself smile. What feels like a smile. ‘Everybody just needs to cool down for a bit,’ I say. ‘Let’s get some ice cream. You want some ice cream?’
Jackie doesn’t say anything at first. I run my hand through her hair. ‘It’s gonna be alright,’ I say, but I’m not sure if I’m telling her or if I’m telling myself.
She asks me if I mean it, and I tell her yes. She makes me swear on it. I look up, see Ma’s house getting smaller in the rearview, see my brother standing in the driveway like a kid in his father’s suit, and I make one more promise that I know I’ll have to break, eventually.
ERIC SHATTUCK is a freelance writer living in Charleston, South Carolina. He studied at South Carolina State University, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts in English and served as an editor for the Inkwell Student Literary Journal. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Gone Lawn, Freeze Frame Fiction, 99 Pine Street, Yellow Chair Review, and The Drabblecast.
‘Good riddance,’ Mother had said when my last girlfriend dumped me. My sister Joan could date two-timing losers or drug-dealing depressives, and Mother would encourage her to stick it out. ‘Long lasting relationships don’t just happen,’ she’d say. ‘It’s a job. It takes work.’ I was in no rush to apply, but Joan took it as a challenge and settled down with a guy named Brent. ‘He’s almost as good looking as your father was at that age,’ Mother said to Joan. ‘Enjoy it while it lasts.’
When my father was dying last spring, a silent understanding grew between me and Joan that Mother would come to live with me after he passed. I was a forty-three-year-old bachelor.
Before selling my parents’ house, Joan took on that dreadful task of sifting through things. Mother was a hoarder. She’d been filling up the nest since we left. Our old bedrooms became storage closets – stacked boxes filled with god-knows-what. Joan called me crying during this purging extravaganza, and I was grateful not to be there.
Mini aftershocks sounded at my place.
‘Michael, don’t you have measuring cups?’ Mother asked. ‘I thought I gave you new towels for Christmas last year,’ she said. ‘This nozzle is useless, it takes twice as long to get the shampoo out,’ she complained.
‘No, Mom,’ I responded. ‘I don’t remember, Mom,’ I said. ‘I’ll get a new one, Mother,’ I promised.
‘I had all that stuff,’ she moaned. ‘Your damn sister made me throw it all out.’
‘I thought you donated everything?’
‘I did, but I’d rather have given it to someone I know.’
She’s been busying herself with chores since she moved in three weeks ago. Before living here, she’d taken the Greyhound to visit me every fall. She knew the lay of the land, so I suggest she go for a walk as I leave for work.
‘There’s those nice antique stores up on Queen,’ I remind her.
‘Overpriced,’ she moans. Mother likes to shop but to her credit and my father’s relief she never spent a fortune. She goes for bargains and buys most of her ‘goodies’ at the Salvation Army or Goodwill. ‘Maybe,’ she says. ‘My knees aren’t so bad today.’
When I get home from the office, she tells me she’s been up the street but that most of the shops are closed on Mondays. ‘I did go to the hardware store,’ she says. ‘I met the owner, Abraham. You probably know him.’
‘How would I know him?’
‘Because, you’ve lived here eight years,’ she says, pulling out a new shower head from her bag. ‘You should meet the people in your neighbourhood.’
I think of that Sesame Street jingle and laugh aloud.
‘Why are you laughing?’ She suddenly looks much younger, childlike.
There is a curious woman in my neighbourhood. She appeared two months ago and strolls around the building that sits on the corner of my block. Every morning I see her walking past on my way to the streetcar stop and again after work. Around and around she goes. I’ve never seen her in any of the stores. Sometimes she stands, staring into space when I pass. She doesn’t seem to notice me, or that I notice her – two invisibles.
She wears the same thing most days: an olive-coloured three-tiered skirt, an over-sized brown leather jacket, and weathered cowboy boots. I imagine a nice body under her many layers. Her straight blonde hair is well past her shoulders. Her skin is tanned with freckles, natural, not one of those fake carroty rub-ons.
Last week I saw her digging cigarette butts out of an old ketchup can in front of the coffee shop. When I offered to buy her a pack, she didn’t look up or say anything but gave a gentle declining wave.
I want to live inside her head. An hour would suffice because I imagine unpleasant things lurking there, beaten down by medication. She slips into my mind at work. Where does she live? What’s her name? What does her voice sound like? And why can’t I stop thinking about her?
My mother calls me at work. ‘Michael, can you pick up milk on your way home? Not that skim stuff you drink, Carnation brand, sweetened condensed. I’m making my rum balls tomorrow. Michael! Are you listening?’
‘Yes. I thought you only made those for Christmas.’
‘They freeze up to three months. It should be in the baking aisle.’
On my way home I read the blue ink on the back of my hand: Carnation. My last question is answered. The invisible woman looks identical to Sarah Berry, at least my memory of her.
Sarah was my mother’s best friend when I was a kid. She was the prettiest mom on the street. Her son was a year younger and played on the same hockey team as me at the local arena. She was a supply teacher at my school. I called her Sarah once in front of my classmates at recess, and afterwards she pulled me aside and said, ‘Michael, I think you should call me “Mrs Berry” at school.’ A year later she quit teaching when she got pregnant. My mother called it an accident. ‘No one waits ten years between children,’ she said.
Mother planned a baby shower for Sarah, and I was roped into decorating our living room. I protested because it was a girly thing to do, but Joan was on a school trip to New York and Dad was her chaperone. Mom showed me how to make carnations out of Kleenex. I layered four pieces, folded them back and forth, folded again, and then wrapped the ends with twist ties. The tricky part was separating the layers without tearing the tissue. We taped the yellow, pink, and white flowers to our pale blue armchair that would seat the guest of honour.
In junior high, a year after that, Sarah and her family moved out west. It was sudden and I remember being angry. We never saw or heard from the Berrys again.
I had thought about telling Mother about my invisible woman but didn’t think she would understand what I didn’t myself. I curse under by breath when the streetcar driver announces a short turn because I was now eager to tell her I’d made this connection.
I get off on Queen and walk the three blocks down. Sarah’s doppelganger is sitting on a concrete bench outside the post office. I slow my steps, hoping to get a closer look at her face but her head is down.
Mother had made a stew and is ladling it into bowls when I get home.
‘Did you get the milk?’ she asks.
‘I forgot. I’ll go after dinner. Mom, you don’t have to cook like this every day.’
‘What else would I do with my time?’
‘What about friends?’ I ask, sitting down at the table.
‘I don’t need friends. My kids are my friends.’ This has been my mother’s long-standing mantra. We had moved off the street a year after the Berrys and Mother never kept in touch with any of the women – the ones who came to Sarah’s shower. She never established friendships in the new community and acted proud of her loner status.
‘You had friends on Homewood,’ I say. ‘Remember Sarah Berry?’
‘That was thirty years ago, Michael,’ she says, blowing on her stew.
‘There’s this woman in our neighbourhood,’ I tell her. ‘She looks like Sarah.’
Mother drops her spoon and squeezes one hand with her other.
‘She walks around the building on our corner every day,’ I say. ‘She’s strange, mentally ill perhaps. Have you noticed her?’
‘Why would I notice her?’
‘Because, Sarah was your best friend and this woman looks just like her.’
‘Stop saying that. I don’t think of her anymore. She was not a good person.’
‘What do you mean, she wasn’t good?’
‘Can’t you find someone normal to date?’
‘I’m not dating her, Mother. I was just curious. I thought you would--’
‘I’m going to bed,’ she says, picking up her half-eaten bowl of stew.
‘It’s only seven o’clock.’
‘I’m going to read,’ she calls from down the hall.
I stand at the kitchen sink, scrubbing pots, and thinking over and over – she was not a good person. I wonder if Joan knows anything. She had looked after Sarah’s baby a couple times.
The following day I zip to the grocery and back. I leave the can of Carnation and a note: ‘Mom. Working late. Don’t wait up. Michael.’ Instead, I go to the bar with the gang from sales, a mid-twenties crowd. I’ve always preferred the company of those younger than me. Joan told me once that I have psychological arrested development, whatever that means. She was hurt when I didn’t ask for an explanation and angry when I said I didn’t care.
My invisible woman is missing when I get back to the neighbourhood. She stops patrolling after dark.
I sit at the dining room table with warmed-up leftovers. After, I looked out the window and see Mother, who I thought was in bed, coming down the street. She lumbers up the wooden steps to our front door.
‘How do you like the beef?’ she asks, as though her being out late is nothing unusual. ‘I tried out a recipe from that food channel.’
‘Where were you?’ I ask.
‘Out with a friend.’
‘I thought you didn’t need friends.’
‘I don’t,’ she says, dropping her purse onto the hardwood. ‘I took that lady friend of yours out for coffee.’
‘What lady friend?’ I squeak.
‘That woman who walks around the block – the one you’re so fascinated with.’
‘Oh, Mother, you didn’t.’
‘I did. And, she doesn’t look a damn thing like Sarah Berry. I don’t know where you got that crazy idea.’
I trudge to my room like a grounded teenager.
The next morning I leave for work while it’s still dark to avoid my mother and the invisible woman. Deadlines at work keep me consumed all morning. At lunch I call Joan, letting it ring twice before hanging up. I’m afraid of what I might already know to be true.
The slow-moving streetcar home isn’t annoying at all. When I get off at my stop, I glance around and there she is – my mother’s new friend – the walking past.
After the birth, she stared at the cord, gnarled and strange like roots. When they set him on her chest, his weight felt familiar. It wanted to meld back into her. He had a flaky scalp and a hairy back, but the nurse said he was beautiful. They both received hospital bracelets, like manacles. The nurses told her an alarm would sound if he was carried out. She didn’t ask whether hers would set it off.
A curtain separated her from the next new mother, someone twice her age. That family was loud in a way that Chari’s was not. They sang to their baby in the night. The curtain between them was decorated with dark green half-curls, like bits of plants. Chari kept trying to find where the pattern repeated. She traced it sometimes with one finger while she waited for the next thing to happen: the baby to return, the lunch to arrive, the nurses to check the incision. The hospital sent her home with instructions for the first week. Her mother came that day, unlit cigarette tapping against her purse.
Over the next few months, the baby grew. But he never stopped crying, not when she held him, fed him, changed him, rocked him, sang to him. The TV in her mother’s room grew louder. The phone stayed silent. She didn’t bother to climb down the fire escape. None of the boys waited for her at the corner now.
One night, at midnight, she tried putting him down in his crib to sleep. The plastic mattress squeaked and he woke up. She picked him up again and sat back in the armchair. Sometimes she could sleep that way if she leaned back far enough. Sweat rolled down her nose and dropped onto his cheek before she could stop it. She froze, not sure whether to wipe it off or hope he’d sleep through it. He clenched his hand into a fist and punched the air, but then turned and dropped off to sleep again.
The gray fabric of the chair had a rip in the corner, and a piece of vomit-yellow foam poked out. She remembered shoving her fingers into that hole, driving them in to hang on as she pulled the boys inside her, pushing her hand over their mouths so that her mother wouldn’t hear them gasp when they came. They seemed like babies themselves to her now, always gaping and hungry and desperate for something they couldn’t name.
An hour later she tried the crib again. Then 1:30, 1:45, 2:00, 2:10, 2:45. A siren passed. He thrashed in his crib, strewing drool on the grinning plastic characters. He looked blurry to her through the half-light. He squalled, his face red and tight. The doctor had told them to leave him when he cried, but there was nowhere else to go. Her mother said she had to keep him quiet. School started again in a week. When she lifted him, his nails scraped her face. In the light from the street lights outside the window, he looked out of place, like a pink squirrel fallen from a nest.
He twisted and screamed, loud as ever. He could not be comforted. It would be the same for him as it had been for her. They would always be alone. She didn’t mean to squeeze, to shout, but she felt her mouth move as her mother’s did, then her hands clench and tighten. His bones felt so light. One more move and it would all end. He paused, his yell frozen halfway out. The shock in his baby eyes matched her own.
But it was the taste that stopped her. Metal, like hard water. Iron filling her mouth. The memory of the sharp sting of a slap. She set him down again and unlocked her jaw.
He arched his back, his eyes on her. He thrashed and screamed again, and when he went quiet she felt a new fear. But he paused, opened his mouth, and let out a long burp. Then he grabbed his toes and made a soft gurgling noise, his eyes on her.
She lifted him again, feeling his unbearable weight. He nestled into her shoulder, formless as a barnacle, his lips sucking her skin. He smelled of her now: strawberry shampoo, nail polish, newly sharpened pencils.
DIANA REED lives in Chicago and writes on the L. Her fiction has appeared in Bartleby Snopes and in Six Sentences, and she's working on her first novel.
My name is Gabe. I was born between sky and land, spilt like a fish onto the salt-washed decks of a seaborne keel.
The men who brought us left soon after the floods. Our Sisters say they will not return. But I was just a girl then. I can hardly remember what a man is like, except for strange dreams of stubble on my cheek, of calloused fingers holding my hand, the low cadence of deep laughter, and a bold, musk-like scent. Mother says I was three or four summers old when they sailed. She says I’d do better to forget.
The Sisters taught me to write, to keep notes for them, and I learned my letters well. Sister Dorothea says I have a scribe’s hand, but an empty head. She watches me always as I smooth the vellum, and holds her breath as I measure out the ink. ‘Not too much, Gabrielle,’ she says.
It is always ‘not too much’. I sense the limits of everything as I make my way through the worn pathways of these stony ruins. Weeds creep through cracked paving. The gardens are hoed and watered by women daily, but nothing flourishes except weeds. I look across to the thin blue line of sea, and wonder if the menfolk will ever return. We are not allowed to speak of it.
This is how I know myself to be evil: my words. Inventories and lists, that is all I’m supposed to write. My charcoal was easy to get – there are fires here all the time, sacrifices, offerings to the gods to keep the waters away. I hid the paper under my chemise until it got warm against my skin, then escaped from the cloisters, bent double as if in pain, saying my courses had come.
My name is Gabe. I am a liar and a thief.
We are three score women here, that’s all, so there’s much to do. This spring, I was given a new job: watching sheep. I have to count them morning and evening and make sure the fox stays away. I have a small bothy in the field overlooking the sea. It was nothing but a ruin at first, as everything is, but I stacked the stones up on three sides, spread turf over coppiced wood to make a roof, and cut a hole out the middle. The smoke from the fire draws well, keeps me warm.
At night, I watch the stars arc their way through the lonely heavens. The sky is big and as fathomless as the sea. There are no limits here, away from the Sisters. The sound of the waves is soothing and preferable to the harsh chant of women. And my paper is easier to hide: I keep it under my bedding, next to my knife.
Days lengthen as the lambs grow. Sometimes I watch the sea and imagine I see a ship, the men returning. I picture them landing on the beach and wonder if I would recognise any of them. They are giants, like the monsters the Sisters tell us about, standing tall as the cliff face and covered in hair, rough and unkempt. I’m afraid that they wouldn’t understand me, nor I them. That I would try and speak, but they’d just turn away and sail back, back where they’d come from. Lost again.
I sigh as the dream fades.
The first time I see him, he’s crouched over like a child. He’s mending something on the hull of his craft. I watch him without blinking, but when he stands I’m shocked. He carries himself differently from a woman. He walks with purpose, with a kind of unconscious grace. The wind plays with his long black hair as it whips across his back, matted like the wrack on the shore. It covers his face too, like the giants from my dreams. He looks harmless, but I’m not a fool: I know him for a beorling, an evil spirit said to bring bad luck. Still, I can’t stop looking. I am caught behind a rock, my driftwood forgotten, while the sun climbs through a hurtsickle sky.
We are supposed to tell the Sisters if we catch sight of a beorling. Then we are exorcised with prayers and chants. It’s been almost a sennight now, and still I’ve said nothing. I listen from behind my rock as he sings to himself. None of the words are mine and yet I know them. Yes – here, inside, I recognise the song. I can’t explain. Perhaps my evil nature links me to him.
One night, he’s waiting for me. Footprints in the sand – I curse my stupidity – and he’s there, behind my rock. The moon is full and silver and he doesn’t say a thing, only stands slowly, as if wary of frighting a wild animal. Then he reaches for my hand. I expect to feel afraid, but I’m not. The stars are reflected in the black of his eyes and a universe has suddenly appeared in a vast sea that spreads itself wide under the big sky.
Next evening, I wait, I watch as he hauls his coracle to the dune’s edge, his back curved, his arms strong. The wind outlines my skirts against my legs and, as I stand there, I’m aware of myself in a new way. I’ve never felt this before. He smiles as he takes my hand, and we make our way through the sheep and clamour of lambs, into the bothy.
‘Beorling,’ I say, gesturing toward him. He lifts my hand to his mouth, my palm upwards, and holds it there so I can feel the roughness of his beard, the warmth of his breath, the softness of his lips.
This is the only word I will ever say to him.
Next morning, he’s gone. The coracle has been blown against the dunes, upside down, the underside misshapen and bent. His hunting spear is next to it, broken, and there’s a trail of blood on the sand. This is how I know a bad thing has happened.
Mother and Sister Dorothea are already in sight, approaching from the path which leads back to the cloisters. I feel a sinking like drowning inside. My breath is in gasps as I reach instinctively for the knife under my bedding. I wrap it in some sheets of paper, then secure it under my vest, before running to the boat. I drag it behind me to the shoreline.
The sea is salty, familiar, welcoming. They stand and watch, Sister and Mother, two still, small figures, as I push myself into the waves, foam spray churning, heaving. The last thing I see is a blur of red sand, then I’m fighting for my breath, paddling hard, pushing, willing the boat to stay afloat.
Under the enveloping sky, they grow smaller and smaller as the current finally takes me. In a rush of pain, of loss, I bear no grief for them, but suddenly realise – my beorling is gone. Through the wind and the cries of the black-wing gulls, I lose myself as a merciless tide of longing breaks forth. My name is Gabe. I am free.
ANNE LAWRENCE BRADSHAW writes poems and short stories. Her work has appeared recently in Orbis, Acumen and Artemis (UK literary journals). She lives in a dilapidated cottage in Northumbria, drinks too much tea, and walks a lot.
Tweet her @shrewdbanana
‘The difference is, I lie for a reason,’ I hear the man say. The newspaper I work for has sent me to write an article on the burgeoning population of professional beggars on the streets of Lahore, and my robust passion for deviancy has led me to sit across the table with this man at a local dhaba.
‘I’m not a beggar, I confess, but I do not lie for easy money. God forbid me. I disguise this way for the relic of my ishq,’ he says.
I have no trouble in presuming that this is another story of unrequited love on the verge of climbing the zenith of Sufism, albeit that this is a story of a Pathan from up north panhandling in the streets of Lahore, covertly lurking for a mere glance of his dear one. I have no trouble in presuming that this is going to make a great story.
‘Tell me about it,’ I prod him as I sip my tea.
His head bobs sideways and a faint, beatific smile snakes its way upon his lips.
‘She made her heart into a stone,’ he says. ‘How little she knew. God has made a flame dwell inside every stone. The appropriate surge of friction and the right touch can ignite majestic fires.’
I savour his poetic musings and allow my gaze to lower and look into a luminescent stone around his neck, peering out from behind his rags. I see that it happens to be an exotic emerald amulet.
‘It’s a family heirloom that she once adorned with her grace,’ he says, following my gaze, stroking the amulet gently, coaxing it back inside his rags, close to where his heart lies. I quickly shift my gaze back to his eyes, my well-trained stare piercing him for more.
‘She caged her heart behind the gilded warps of self-deception, chanting to herself that love cannot penetrate these barricades. She was wrong. Every day she came to me to let me pick thorns from her heart that life had inflicted upon her, the ones she had entranced under her bewitching spell of resurrection, keeping her wounds alive, the trauma helping her shun the call of love. Every day she desired for me to heal those scars. Every day she bolted down her heart some more.’ He pauses to conjure recollections, sequestering some air to breathe from the memories around him.
‘She was but a city of Jerusalem, waiting for a Saladin to conquer her,’ he says. ‘And there, her heart lay in the grotesque abyss that didn't let anything escape, no love, no hatred. Her heart was a black hole with a surprising gush of gravity. Once you enter, you can neither escape nor apprehend its unusual laws of physics. We were married after three months of my diligent struggle.’
I stop scribbling my notes to let a feeling of elation sweep through me.
‘One month after that,’ he continues, ‘she was killed in a drone attack along with thirteen other citizens.’
I pause again. He suddenly leaves the table and disappears into the crowd before I can notice, leaving both the tea and me in a volatile hiatus. I gather my notes and head back to the office.
Later that same day, I'm cruising off to a restaurant in Lahore that offers the best subcontinental cuisine. I have to prepare my report on a recent incident that no one is certain about. As I approach, a police official tells me that a suicide bomber has hit the site. Preliminary investigations suggest that the target was a small group of tourists from the US.
As I head on to see the casualties, I'm curious and ambitious to be the first journalist to report who is behind this. Among the debris and smithereens my eyes rove upon a luminescent emerald amulet dangling around an errant, severed head.
NOOR UL HUDA NIAZI, aged 18, studies MBBS in Pakistan and aims to make a competent doctor by profession and writer by passion. She spends her days voraciously reading, painting and playing chess, and worries a lot about taking to bipolar disorder as she constantly ricochets between her medical and literary self in the fervid backdrop of doctors beseeching themselves towards imaginary finish lines in a country full of vehement, awfully engaging people. You can contact her at email@example.com
Had a fight with Maxie outside the music shop in Kentish Town and she backed her car into a lorry which neither of us had seen. We’d been too mad to notice things. Maxie was my girlfriend but we never seemed to be in sync. There was this taunting something about the way we were with one another. I hated it but couldn’t draw myself away. We were both unable to give in to the idea of failure; felt a desperate compulsion to carry on. We’d bought lock and stock into the idea of happy ever after.
In my head I escaped to the wild. It was ochre coloured and stretched for miles. I walked and got calmer, finally reaching an oasis. Of course, what I was really dreaming of was Little Sandy Desert in Western Australia. The oasis was the town of Wiluna where I spent my early years. I think I kept on reconstructing this because I wanted to get back to how I was then. I suppose the word is innocent. The place I was at in reality had no colour to it but dingy-dark. On top of everything else, I’d lost my job and couldn’t for the life of me seem to find another one. There was this picture in my mind of me and Maxie sitting together in a bottomless boat, murky water pouring in. The two of us drowning side by side.
But would there be any advantage in going back to the stretching yellow and the clear, wide sky? I mean, there isn’t anywhere to hide in that kind of terrain. You’re out in the open, an easy target. Because just lately, I’ve become somebody who needs a hiding place where I can roll myself away.
Maxie ended up in a wheelchair. Everybody we know blamed me and I blamed myself. I’d wanted to change the way we were together but hadn’t known how. After the accident my hurt feelings about the relationship got more intense. It flayed me alive seeing the straining muscles in Maxie’s arms as she propelled herself along and I wheeled her about myself more than she wanted to stop this happening. She was facing forward, away from me, so I didn’t have to see the pain lines around her eyes.
Her parents particularly blamed me for the accident and I suppose that’s more or less inevitable. They had this way of looking at me with lowered eyes, as if I was too vile to acknowledge openly. Which I couldn’t stand. Finally I started to rebel against my ‘bad guy’ image. Why did everybody take the attitude it was all my fault? Yes, I had been screwing Janine, the Pilates instructor at the gym where I used to go. I admit that. But Maxie was no angel either. There was that guy in the music shop. Did she think I was blind?
At Christmas things came to a head. There they were sitting in a row with paper hats on, looking at me with resentment. Gerry and Jackie, Maxie’s folks, on the sofa, and Maxie next to them under the bright-lit Christmas tree, in that damned wheelchair. Truth is, I felt she’d angled herself next to the twinkly-sparkly stuff to make me see the contrast. To punish me.
It was right then I pictured myself leaving. What a disgrace and a terrible thing to think of doing when you had a girlfriend in a wheelchair who couldn’t fend for herself, especially when the accident that had brought her down had been your fault. In spite of seeing all of this I looked at the three of them and knew I’d go. New Year, I upped and went. Didn’t feel good about it in the least.
If I’d hadn’t been so broke, would I have gone to back to Wiluna? The place had been so much on my mind lately. But no, I couldn’t avoid seeing the dismal truth. The sweet yellowness and the wide sky just weren’t right for the me I had become. What it all boiled down to was I could never have my youth back. The lost world of my dreams.
Now I am homeless. I crouch in my little Camden doorway, the darkest place I’ve been to yet; go over the possibility that the classic happy ending may only be a myth.
Fiction by JAY MERILL is recently published or forthcoming in 3:AM Magazine, Bunbury Magazine, The Casket of Fictional Delights, Crannog Magazine, Flash Fiction Magazine, The Galway Review, Hobart, Litro, Minor Literature[s], Platform for Prose, Story Shack and The Pygmy Giant. Jay has 2 short story collections published by Salt and was nominated for the Frank O’Connor Award and Edge Hill Prize. She has an Award from Arts Council England and is the winner of the Salt Short Story Prize. Jay lives in London and is Writer in Residence at Women in Publishing. You can find her on Twitter @JayMerill
She wakes at dawn. She pads into the still dark field and bowing low, stretches sleep away. The grass is cool and sharp under her feet. She looks back – wherever she is, she loves looking back – and there is the house behind her, a rectangle of adobe, doors and windows trimmed with green, and the immense grandfather elm spreading shade over it all. Though she cannot see them, she can hear the elm beetles already at work. All morning, all evening, they click in the branches and fall out of the sky, brown dots that suddenly appear on the ground and your skin.
She sees the old man standing on the porch, facing east. From the back, he looks as young as he was when they first met, straight-backed with thick black hair that refuses to turn white.
She comes up softly but the old man has heard her and turns. And then he is unmistakably old, his face lined with arroyos and his eyes dark and moist like raisins in water.
Hola hermana, he says, cómo amaneciste?
They have known each other for so long they do not speak anymore except for these rituals of Morning, did you sleep well? and Night, may you sleep well.
They stand on the porch till the grey sky lightens into blue, till the sun rises over the hills, hits a green cholla, so the spines gleam like swords and then slants over one side of the valley. A sheen of gold spreads over brown scrubland, the junipers burn bright, the rocks edging the mesas shine dark and lustrous.
As she goes into the kitchen, she hears the thud behind her of the old man sitting down on his rocking chair. He will stay outside all day watching the light shift, the rabbits running from their burrows, the blue jays darting through juniper, and cursing under his breath at the gunshots in the distance. Always some idiots with guns. Pendejos.
Que guapa, says Rosamaria as she enters the kitchen and nods her in. You look like you had a long night, mi hermana, were you dreaming of your old boyfriends? Rosamaria has stood by the wooden stove all these years, every morning, making tortillas of blue corn, clicking softly under her tongue to see how well the dough listens to her fingers, swiftly patting it out into thin circles, placing them on the stove, turning them deftly till they rise, and then whisking them into a basket and covering them with a cloth.
Come eat, Rosamaria says, holding out a tortilla. The light of a single bulb illuminates the edge of her long skirt – a red flower shines, as if rising from night.
She takes the tortilla and eats it slowly, looking at one bulb above that creates as many shadows as light. The shapes of skillets hanging over the wooden stove sway gently. The floorboards creak with age, memory and water that seeps in during the summer rains. The long rectangular wooden table is empty save for one plate that the old man will not touch till the evening.
The stove crackles with piñon and juniper and fills the kitchen with an acrid smell that is as much part of morning as the sun. The heat rises to greet her, and so do memories of the days when she was not so old, when the kitchen was full of the men with whom she worked, men like Carlos and Alonzo and Rogelio.
When she would enter, they would be sitting there, still half-asleep, tortilla in one hand, coffee mug in another. But after the second cup and the sixth tortilla, the stories they told – like that crazy bull who jumped a fence and got loose. They chased him but he was far gone, across the river, across the town, clear on through to el pueblo viejo, where the old timers used to live, el pueblo fantasmo where the old timers died, and from there, they brought him back – only to find that the cows from Ramon’s ranch had followed. Then they had to turn right around and take the cows to Ramon. Qué locura.
The way Carlos would tell it, the rattlesnakes were descending from every hill towards the arroyo and towards him.
The way he saw it, he would kill every last one of them.
Oye, he would say amid all the laughter, it’s them or me. If you don’t get them, they get you. If you don’t kill the small one you see now, you’ll meet a big one, an hour later that’ll get you. Don’t tell me déjalos; I tell you, te siguen. They follow you.
He kept souvenirs in his beat-up truck of every rattle he’d ever met, strung together on the dashboard and when he drove, the truck rattled, the rattles rattled and like this, he arrived and left.
Carlos used to tease her. Ven aquí, he would say and shake a rattle in her ear, así se bailan, how they dance. She didn’t like that music and would run straight down the path to the creek, to the coolness of running water and the shade of a Russian olive. There she would stay till her heart had stopped beating.
Those were the old days. Now her left leg hurts, her eyes are no longer keen and the warmth of the wooden stove is hers and Rosmaria’s alone.
The old man barely eats anymore. All day, he sits on that porch. Some afternoons, he rises and stares at the bull in the corral. The bull stares back. It is a massive black Brahma. In the afternoons, as heat spreads across the valley, it fumes and paws the ground. It is as old as the man and as harmless, but for a while the heat gives it menace and it too remembers how it used to be, how the men would circle it warily, making the sign of the cross rapidly on their chests, and how no one would even think of coming close till the evening when it was cooler.
That afternoon, she sits in the kitchen with Rosamaria’s daughter who is home from college and comes to the house to help her mother finish cleaning so she can leave early. The daughter is small, dark, and steps lightly around the room, dancing out quick rhythms with her feet and making circles and flowers with her wrists.
The old man comes in for a glass of water, takes one look at the girl and is done in. No one else notices – but she notices, she knows the old man too well.
The old man says, hello, how you are you? How is college? Rosamaria says her daughter is studying business management but what she also does is dance. Flamenco! Just a few classes, mama, says the girl, I’ve only taken like four. Flamenco! says Rosamaria, undeterred, and whirls the flowers of her skirt around. Olé!
The girl has the lure of those who have not yet found their fire but are so close to it. It makes men think they are the light and the way. But they are signposts, barely lit.
The old man goes out into the field and begins to sing. He starts with ‘Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,’ goes on to ‘She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,’ and ends with ‘El Rey’, which he belts out, standing in the center of the valley. Rosamaria and the girl laugh. The neighbors who hear him grin. El cantante del valle, they say. And also, vuelve mas loco cada día. But he is in love.
In the evening, he forgets her. Looking at the sunset, he forgets everything.
The two of them stand and watch. The sun moves over the hill, illuminates the scarlet cholla flowers so they glow, gilds the dark mesa, diffuses into strands of deep pink and then dissolves.
Así es, says the old man, like this I want to go, over the hills in a burst of color.
They both bow and stretch low and once again the day ends as it begins, with the smell of earth and the bristle of grass against her nose.
The boy is eight and doesn’t speak unless spoken to. He sits in a room watching his grandfather die.
When they would visit the old man, his mother would chafe and nudge, urging him to ‘Say something to your grandpa,’ but the old man would shush her. Too much noise in the world already, he would say, wagging a knuckle towards the boy; it is good to watch and listen.
They usually ate eggs and tortillas every visit.
Eggs every day, papa? The daughter was only thirty but motherhood had already made a matron out of her.
Eggs every day, hija, the old man would say. She knew better than to ask again.
As he sits in that room, the boy wonders if he should be muttering prayers like his mother and aunts who are gathered around the enormous white bed in which lies the gaunt body of the old man, the chest barely rising and falling. The boy imagines a dry leaf carried by a slow current down to a place where the tamarisk grows tall and disappears into gloom.
He should not be in the room but he has slipped in quietly and sits in a dark corner.
At the foot of the bed, watching intently is the small sheep dog. Her coat is run with grey, her pointed ears pointed forward, intent on the old man. She is breathing slowly as if in rhythm with the body on the bed.
The last breath.
Madre de Dios, says the daughter. The aunts begin clicking their rosaries faster.
The old man passes on at the second Holy Mary, right at ‘Pray for us, sinners now.’
The whole room becomes one long wail and then shifts into sobs of different cadences.
The boy and the dog watch without crying.
The boy’s silence alerts his mother. She turns, gasps to see him, begins to scold then relents and clasps him to her chest. She is imaging his lament should she pass.
After a while, the boy wriggles free and goes to the dog. He puts his hand on the dog’s back; the dog turns and fixes her clear black eyes on him.
The mother notices the gesture and breaks into fresh sobs.
Finally, she is thinking of her father. If that dog could talk, she says.
The aunts murmur and they all start clicking the rosaries again.
She did speak, says the boy, she spoke and I listened…
His mother is so surprised at his voice that she loses count on the rosary and has to start all over again.
The boy is ten and is watching the dog walk through the gates of the old ranch. The dog walks slowly, as if for the last time. She is remembering the old man, she must, look how she walks as if she remembers, as if her feet remember, her nose remembers. Her coat is full of grey and white, her gait deliberate, stopping now and then to let her left leg rest. The old bull comes to the edge of its pen to greet her. She rests her nuzzle on the gate of the pen, and then continues on, past the adobe house to the open field. Slowly, as if praying, she stretches, her nose low to the grass.
The boy starts to cry and turns his face his way so his mother will not see. But she has already walked past him, her hand clutching the list of items to be auctioned.
The boy cries silently. He feels a certain tightening in his gut.
Later, he will come to recognise it. Later, it will seep into his dreams and wake him. Then he will rise, his stomach tight, and open a notebook. And when the dog arrives, he will write the dawn.
Shebana Coelho is a writer and director, originally from India, now living in New Mexico. She received a Fiction Fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts and a Fulbright grant to Mongolia. Her poems, stories and articles have appeared in Chronogram, Word Riot, Vela, Al Jazeera America, Madcap Review, Best Women's Travel Writing, vol. 10, and NPR's On Being blog, among others. Visit her website at www.shebanacoelho.com