The sun, half hidden behind a projection of rock. Wooden fences and burnt orange dirt and the occasional bleached bone. Rusting cars scattered toward the horizon. And my six-year-old daughter, a bag of Lay’s chips crushed between her knees, melting into the passenger seat. As always, silent.
I’d picked up a book about reaching children after divorce a couple days before she showed up. Initiate the conversation, it had read. Welcome the child’s emotions. Do something informal – something the child enjoys.
Caroline seems to like driving through the desert all right. Every so often, she glances over at the white plastic mustang twirling from my rearview mirror. I’d bought it at a gas station for three bucks the other day after kid-proofing my car, throwing out wrinkled condom wrappers and the packs of cigarettes I kept around for emergency smokes. It bothered me, the horse frozen mid-gallop, its legs stretching out into nothingness. But I knew she’d like it. When she was younger, before the divorce, she drew horses on everything; misshapen horses with straight long legs and flat stomachs and smiling mouths with square teeth. I’d taken one of these drawings with me to New Mexico and hung it on my fridge.
A truck rattles by and dust explodes around us, funneling in through the half-open windows, staining the white horse a dull brown. She squeezes her eyes shut and claps a hand over her mouth to keep from laughing. I haven’t heard a sound from her since I picked her up at the airport a few days ago. She’d always been a quiet kid, but stopped talking completely after I’d packed up and left, driving across the country until trees shrunk to sagebrush and the land rose up in columns of smooth rock. The rawness of it was what I’d thought I wanted.
‘What do you say, Caro? Wanna see some horses today?’
I hear little clicks of fingernails against teeth, and remember the book’s advice – don’t let the child drift away – but I let her sink into herself anyway. We crest a hill, and a squat building materializes through the shimmering heat. From here, it looks like a box with a torn tinfoil cover throwing off sunlight, as delicate and harmless as one of Caroline’s school projects. She pinches her nose as we pull closer. The smell used to make me retch, the stink of shit and sweat and something else I couldn’t put my finger on, something musty and thick.
‘Put on your shoes,’ I tell her. We park in a cloud of rising dust. The lot is almost full, crammed with beat-up trailers and old cars and a few nicer ones, too. The Innocents, we call them. They’re the ones that wander into the chaos with pure intentions – to buy a riding pony for their kids or a strong draft horse to pull heavy loads on their farms. They rarely return. I see Hank by the pen, a cigarette bobbing from his lips, and I wave. ‘Be nice to Mr Hank,’ I whisper to Caroline. I pull her out of the seat, but she won’t look at me, her gray eyes focused on some spot in the distance as she wraps her arms around my neck. Her hot breaths seep through the fabric of my shirt like a second heartbeat.
‘Rick.’ Hank’s smile reveals a mouthful of corn-kernel teeth. ‘Almost thought you stopped coming. Left it all behind you.’ He winks, and I feel Caroline lift her head from my neck. ‘Who’s your sidekick?’
I hoist her up a little in my arms. ‘Caroline. My daughter.’ She wraps her limbs around me more tightly, like a starfish clinging to an underwater rock, and hooks her chin over my shoulder. ‘I only have her ‘til the end of the week, and she loves animals, so I thought maybe we’d see some today.’ I set her down and pat her on the back, and a hollow thump rings out, like there’s nothing inside of her. ‘How ‘bout you go check out those horses over there?’
She looks up at me, her eyes huge in her tiny tanned face, before loping off towards the pen. She moves so freely that I envy her. I’ve become too conscious of my own body, of muscle pulling on tendon pulling on bone, the way they snap me into motion. But it’s a skill in the auction ring. I can pinpoint the weights of the horses within five or ten pounds, and can tell from the way the muscles coil and stretch if the meat will be high quality, the way Hank’s buyers want it.
‘Thanks for coming out,’ Hank says. His cheeks cave in on themselves as he blows perfect smoke rings around my face. ‘Another one dropped dead last night. Don’t understand it. Food and water, what else do they need?’
I think of the metal pen hidden behind Hank’s house, of the dozens of horses pressed against each other in the chilled desert air, heads hanging low, a mass of hair and flesh and shining, unblinking eyes. ‘So you’re only gonna need one?’
He shrugs, squinting at me through the sunlight. Hank’s face seems to change every time I see him, his eyes puckered and retreating into folds of skin while his mouth grows wider, floppier, stretching almost to his ears. It strikes me that maybe I’m the one changing somehow.
‘We’ll take as many as we can get.’ He looks over at Caroline. ‘Smart. Kid protection. No one’s gonna give you shit with her around.’
‘It’s not like that.’
He smiles lazily and takes a long drag. I can remember hating him, back when I first took the job. Hank had invited me over for a steak dinner, refilling my glass with red wine as soon as it was gone, asking if the meat was tender, if the mesquite wood-chip marinade added a necessary smokiness, if it wasn’t the most premium shit I’d ever had. It was only after I’d complimented his steak and my head was buzzing with wine that Hank leaned back in his chair and told me I’d had my first experience with horse meat. I knew it was a test, and knew I needed the money. I sat up straight and stared back at him, my heartbeats thundering against my throat, until Hank spoke.
‘Never show emotion,’ he’d said, stabbing his fork through a piece of red meat and pointing it at me from across the table. ‘Better yet, just don’t have it. There’s no place for pussies in the auction ring.’
The meat sat heavy in my stomach as we discussed the arrangement. Hank didn’t get around so well anymore – his legs curved out in a diamond shape from years of riding horses – and the long drive to Mexico made him ache. I would buy the horses at his auctions, deliver them to the slaughterhouses, and keep my mouth shut in exchange for half the profit. Sixty cents per pound of flesh, about seven-hundred pounds a horse, anywhere from ten to twenty animals bought at a time on good days. I quit my job at a fast-food joint off the highway the next day.
Caroline is standing near the horses, my white T-shirt flapping against her skinny thighs, her face blank and unreadable. Handlers are dragging cows and horses and themselves along invisible but well-traveled highways cutting through the dusty parking lot, paths stretching out from the barn’s double doors to their old trailers. No one looks at each other. I catch glimpses of her through the traffic. Her arms are pressed back against the rungs of the pen like she’s trying to steady herself.
‘Listen, she likes horses, and what else is there to do out here anyway? Play with the scorpions?’
Hank isn’t listening. His eyes are darting around the parking lot, scanning the license plate of each car before meeting mine. He wipes the slickness from his forehead.
‘We’ve got a few buyers over there.’ He points to a group of men huddled underneath the torn roof, their forms tiger-striped by the beams above. I recognize Charlie, an old veteran from Albuquerque who lost an arm in Vietnam. He tells other bidders that he runs a therapeutic riding facility, or that he’s buying horses for his sick granddaughter, depending on the day of the week, and no one bids against him. There’s Bob, an ambitious twenty-something with a twangy Southeastern accent and a crippling gambling addiction. We all know each other the way clouds know rain, conscious of each other’s existence, vaguely aware that we originated from the same combination of elements and chance. Charlie catches my eye and raises his glowing cigarette in a kind of salute.
‘I’ve seen at least a few seven-hundred pounders here. Maybe even an eight-fifty or two. Should be a good day.’ Hank claps a hand to my shoulder, then walks off towards the barn. Caroline is on her tiptoes in her sandals, the soles of her feet caked with red, her fingertips tracing the velvety skin around a mare’s nostril. She’s so gentle that it hurts. I’d forgotten this about her, forgotten most things about her, really. My book says I shouldn’t feel guilty about this sense of disconnect. What I really feel guilty for is that she is half me.
I take her hand and walk with her into the dark barn, down the aisle studded with yellow circles of light. I pick up a bidding card and step into the auction ring, a circular room with whitewashed walls and a thin layer of sawdust on the concrete floor. Caroline’s hand is sweating in mine – or is it my hand that’s sweating? – and I hold on more tightly as we step down through the bleachers arranged around the pen, pushing through white Stetsons and straw hats and one bright green baseball cap with a blonde ponytail flooding through the opening. I set Caroline on my lap and glance over my shoulder. Four words are stitched in black above the rim of the woman’s cap – Angel Acres Horse Rescue – and her eyes are fixed on me. She’s sitting on one of those bleacher seats, the ones people bring to football stadiums, and I can smell her coconut sunscreen. I reach over and wipe a smudge of dirt from Caroline’s cheek.
‘Rick Hayes,’ she says. ‘It’s been a while.’ Her voice is saccharine sweet. Caroline wags her fingers at the woman shyly and burrows back into me. I don’t turn around.
‘You look like a horse girl to me,’ she says to Caroline. ‘Maybe your dad’ll buy you a pony today. What do you think?’ I hear her bleacher seat squeak as she leans forward. ‘Your dad buys a lot of horses, you know.’
I turn Caroline around so she’s facing the pen and jiggle her on my lap like she’s riding a bronco. She used to love this, but now she is still and limp, her head rolling from side to side. I feel like I’m hurting her.
‘What a lucky girl you are,’ the woman says to my daughter.
Someone slides open the big Dutch doors behind the pen, and the room floods with burnt sunlight. Hank appears through a side door, tipping his cowboy hat to the crowd as the old-timers stamp their boots and whistle through puckered mouths. He positions himself behind the podium and taps on his microphone, sending out a dull note that bounces off the walls. ‘Let’s not waste any time here, folks,’ he says, flashing that toothy grin as an old chestnut gelding stumbles through the opening.
‘Aaaand we’ll start off here with a 25 dollar bid, now 30, 30, will ya give me 30? Okay, I got 30, let’s do 35, 35...’
The horse stands in the center of the pen. His coat is clumped with clouds of hair. Flies buzz drunkenly around the blood pooling on a cut above his hoof. The handler shouts some Spanish words, then brings a whip down swiftly upon the horse’s hindquarters. Caroline flinches in my arms. The horse blinks once, but doesn’t move, his legs buckling from the effort of standing. ‘Sold!’ Hank cries, pointing to a spot just above my head. ‘To the young woman.’
Hank’s chanting blends into the background noise of low chuckles and buzzing insects and the sound of the warm wind howling through the Dutch doors as horse after horse – nervous colts, draft horses, Thoroughbreds with limps – go to the woman behind me, her clear nail polish glinting as she thrusts her bidding card over her head like a trophy. Some of the other kill buyers slip out of the auction room quietly.
‘Alright, ya’ll,’ Hank says. ‘Last horse of the day, and she looks pretty good.’ He lets his eyes settle on me for a moment, then looks towards the chute. A gray mare bursts forward, her tail willowing out behind her, and throws herself against the rungs of the pen. She stays pressed there, her black ears pivoting back and forth. There’s a haphazard braid in her mane, tied at the bottom with a faded ribbon. She’d been loved once. The animal has to be nine hundred pounds, at least, and I can feel my fingers drifting towards the bidding card lying next to me. The mare flings her head up and snorts. I barely notice when Caroline slips from my grasp and goes to stand near the pen. The sun bleeds into the sky above her.
‘150 dollars, now 175, 175… come on, folks, gimme 175...’ Charlie thrusts up his card. ‘Got 175, let’s see 190, 190 for this great little gal here, 190...’ Hank’s mouth is still moving against the microphone, but his eyes are on me, and I turn to look at the woman. She’s sitting there with a twenty-dollar bill smashed between her fingers, her shoulders sagging, a few blonde hairs clinging to her damp forehead. A wilting flower. Go to hell, she mouths to me.
‘190! Let’s see 200, 200...’
Caroline is leaning against the railing, her face pressed against the metal bars, and I want to tell her to step away from the pen but I can’t make myself speak. The fingers of the sun are curling into the room, groping along the walls.
I close my eyes and raise my card.
‘I’ve got 200,’ Hank crows. I glance over at Charlie, but his hands are in his lap, his eyes shaded by the brim of his straw hat.
‘Going... going... gone. Sold for 200 to the man in the front row.’ Hank bangs his gavel, and both Caroline and the mare jump at the sound. The handler leads the horse out of the ring, her braid swinging with the motion of her walk. The sun meets the horizon in a burst of light before slipping away behind the earth, and I sit there, watching the sky bruise violet as the bidders shuffle out.
Caroline trails behind me as we walk back to the parking lot. Hank’s leaning against his old trailer, gripping the mare’s halter, and she’s dancing in place, her milky eyes rolling and bright.
‘Put this on her, will ya?’ Hank tosses me a ratty horse blanket and I lay it across her trembling back. The mare’s head is pointed towards the naked slopes of the Western mountains, and she sniffs the air, a snort rumbling through her nostrils. She turns to me and nuzzles my collar. My stomach clenches.
Hank leans in, his hot damp breath tickling my ear. ‘We both stand to make a couple hundred bucks from this horse alone. Good call, kid.’
I feel that familiar itch for a cigarette springing from my fingers. The mare halts and shrieks when we try to push her into the trailer meant for cattle. The ceiling is too low. Hank smacks her rump and she bolts inside, her hooves clattering against the metal grooves.
‘Hank,’ I say. The mare’s neck is twisted sideways, her muzzle nearly touching her chest, but she isn’t struggling anymore. He turns to me, his hand on the trailer door. His face is all sharp angles and shifting shadows in the low sunlight. I try to catch his gaze, but it is floating, elusive. He doesn’t see me.
I could tell him I’d pay him more than the slaughterhouse in Mexico would. I could give the mare to Caroline, something permanent she could call her own. We could set up a lean-to in the backyard, next to the saguaro cactus, in that spot where you can see the flat mesa tabletops and the dips of faraway canyons. I could teach her how to ride – heels down, chin up, back straight and strong. I could go into town and find myself an honest job at the grocery store or the post office, work for eight hours a day, every day, shoving other people’s food into plastic bags or delivering their mail. I could.
Hank taps his boot against the earth, a flat tuneless sound that brings me back. I see my daughter, severed and separate from the world, my child who doesn’t even belong to me. I see the doomed mare and know that saving her would change nothing at all.
Something cold and permanent blooms inside me.
‘Never mind,’ I say.
Caroline and I stand in the empty parking lot as the trailer disappears down the road, watching a cloud of dust hover overhead like some indecipherable sign. The stars are punching through a layer of ink-blue sky. I realize that Caroline is shivering next to me. I drape my leather jacket over her, rubbing the hollow space between her shoulder blades until I feel warmth seeping back into her skin. She’s tearing strips of nail off again with her teeth, one by one, and letting them float to the ground.
‘Where’s she going?’ Caroline’s voice is deeper than I’d expected. Her face turns to mine, those eyes filled with a kind of resignation that make me look away.
I can smell the stinging metallic blood, can feel the cold machines and latex gloves ripping out pink meat that is cut into uniform squares and shoved into sealed plastic packages, and for a moment, lost in the darkness of the desert, I’m convinced that I’m the one headed to the slaughterhouse.
LAUREN WARD is a second-year fiction student in the Creative Writing MFA program at the University of Montana. She’s been competing in horseback riding since she was young and uses these experiences to inform not only this particular story, but much of her writing. This is her first publication.
To look dully. To look dully as you swallow your coffee. To look dully as you swallow coffee at an outside cafe table. To look dully at the woman in the table at the corner. To look dully at her as she sips coffee. To suck dully your coffee as you look at the woman in the corner sipping her coffee. To look at her dress. To look at her green dress, dully. To look at the hem of the green dress on the woman in the corner, the dirtied hem by way of the street.
Her dirtied hem.
Dully, quick at the neckline. To look dully at the neckline of her green dress. To look at the grimed neckline of the woman in the corner. To look dully at the grimed neckline. To perceive her grimy neck.
To look dully at your cake. To look down at my cake, finally arrived. To touch dully my cake, frozen how I like it. To look dully at the waiter. I like my cake frozen, and fuddle my coffee. My coffee tepid and my cake frozen. To look dully at the waiter to send him away. To look dully at his coat tails. Look at the back of his black pants, dully. As he walks away. To look dully at his back as he walks away. To touch dully my frozen cake.
To look at the woman in the green dress in the corner sipping her coffee. To perceive dully her hair twisted about her shoulders. Her tangled hair, tangled over the green shoulder pads. To watch dully her hair tangling about her grimed neck as she bends down to suck her coffee.
To touch my cake and look dully back at the woman sipping her coffee in a green dress. To break the frozen cake and while looking put it in. To put in the cake and swallow it frozen. She perceives me. I look back at her, dully, while I consume the lump of cake.
She gives a start, perceiving me. I gnaw the lump, regarding her dully. To look dully at the woman in the corner staring at you. To watch her grimed neck while she perceives you, eating your frozen treat.
EMILY ABRONS is a writer from New York living in Los Angeles. She has an MFA in Fiction from Brown University. Her work has recently been published in Per Second Press and alice blue review.
Frances Hartwell’s roses had won awards and featured in the pages of at least three glossy gardening magazines. Her speciality was antique roses; her garden a temple to their scented petals and pale pink blooms. In winter she would prune the roses back with a pair of secateurs, nipping and clipping with small deft movements until her garden was a forest of spiky, lifeless stems. In spring a resurrection would occur with small leaves, like cherubs’ wings, sprouting at the site where the stems had been severed. By summer the roses would be back in full bloom, their heads bobbing over the top of the wooden fence that divided our two gardens, perfuming the light nights with their cloying floral tang.
‘The Rose Queen’s out,’ I’d say to David if I spotted movement over the top of the fence. At least on the face of things, I’d say it to David. In reality – with his head buried in a history book, or else decoding The Times crossword – I’d say it to myself.
‘In that saucy gingham apron of hers. Flashing her pruners to the world.’
‘I expect she’s tidying up her beds for spring.’
‘I expect she is.’
‘Cup of tea?’
‘Not just yet.’
And so it went, our marriage, with its daily excursions to the heartland of Trivial via the outposts of Mundane.
Lately, I had taken to communing with my mother in the hallway mirror. Its position next to a window where the morning sun streamed in made it an ideal spot for grooming, for pulling out the wild greys that twined like Bellbind through my hairline.
‘This is where twenty years of wedlock takes you, Corinne,’ she’d say to me – my mother – from behind the mirrored glass. ‘This is where downshifting to some rural haven drops you off and leaves you stranded.’ Then she’d disappear again, leaving me to clench my teeth in an effort to stop my eyes from watering and rubbing at my scalp where the hair-tugs stung the most.
I didn’t tell David any of this. I didn’t tell David much. We lived in a cottage, the second in a south-facing row of four, sandwiched between Frances and her roses in the end house, with Mr Watkins, a widower, at the other side. The fourth house in the row was a holiday cottage, a rental. Over summer someone different would be in there every week, usually from London or Bristol or some other urban, fume-filled sprawl. They’d arrive on Friday nights, pulling up in hire cars with their windows wound down. Radio blaring, doors slamming, shouting over the noise.
That’s how David and I arrived here, impervious to silence, almost four years to the day. We’d driven from our cosy pocket of north east London; our last summer there marked by the riots and arson attacks that turned up the temperature on the city’s sweltering streets. The police had shot and killed a black man, it said on the news. The papers were full of photos showing burnt out buildings. The fires, made from petrol bombs and ignited by fury, seemed to rage for days.
We lived too far from the riot areas to be touched by them, but were close enough to be kept awake by sirens wailing through the night. When we took the dogs out for a walk, we’d sit on a park bench watching the city smoulder from the high ground of Alexandra Palace, smoke pouring out of Tottenham and filling the sky like some genie of doom.
But that seemed like a lifetime ago: David was still working then, my mother was alive. At Ally Pally we drank coffee out of paper cups and the dogs, off their leads, bounded freely in the open air. ‘London’s burning,’ I said to David as the genie unfurled east towards Hackney and south into Brixton, pushing down into Croydon, taking pit stops between.
Nobody ever rioted in Somerset, the place we lived now. Nobody ever rioted because nobody ever needed to.
If they did, the village always had my neighbour, Mr Watkins, to rely on. He’d been an army man in the 50s, served a spell out in Korea. Still slept with an old service pistol beneath his bed, he told me. Spent his days manning an observation post that he’d set up in his spare room that overlooked the garden of the rental.
‘Cannabis users, this week,’ he’d hiss over the top of the fence if he saw me in the garden. ‘Can smell the stuff at sixty paces.’ Or else: ‘Drinkers. Counted three bottles of the hard stuff in the recycling box this morning.’
His surveillance extended beyond the neighbouring garden, through the bricks of the adjoining wall. Visiting couples were frequently ‘having an affair’ or else ‘headed for the divorce court’, depending what he heard on the other side, and unless they were men, in which case his pursed lips spoke volumes.
If David and I ever argued, I might have had cause to worry about our being overheard. As it was, we barely conversed. We were silent in most other matters too. In that respect, I imagined we made the perfect neighbours. Certainly Mr Watkins never had any cause for complaint and, of late, he and I had struck up something of a friendship. There were other things we had in common. Neither of us had children – they were a mutual absence in both our lives – and so, once a week, I’d do a little light shopping for him down in the village. If the weather was bad at the weekends, I’d pop round to his for a cup of tea to make sure he had company.
I’d made other friends since moving here. There was Maud, who I knew from the book shop, and Nisha who took yoga classes at the church hall. There were other friends, too. Ones whose names I didn’t know but I’d bump into them often enough, usually while out walking the dogs, our animals sniffing each other intimately while their humans looked to the sky and discussed the likelihood of rain.
It was hardly assimilation and it didn’t come close to matching the ease with which David had settled in. Not surprising really, seeing as he’d grown up less than thirty miles from where we lived now, in a place that might have been a clone of this one. From its cuckoo mornings to its starry, pitch dark nights, David belonged in village life. He strolled the narrow lanes and footpaths as if the world had brought him home.
Frances Hartwell was another native. Barring the occasional week away, her entire existence had run its course in a half mile radius of the village green. And not just her life either, but those lives within her blood cells and bone marrow that could be traced back to the Battle of Langport. David had bumped into her, he told me in a rare conversation, at one of the historical re-enactments he attended.
‘Her ancestor was a General, one of Cromwell’s men. Quite a formidable force, by all accounts.’
‘Is that right?’ I said, poking a stick through the drain cover. It was autumn and the build-up of leaves had caused a blockage.
‘Very interesting man, John Hartwell. After Langport, he travelled on with Fairfax to take Bristol from the Royalists. He was quite the local legend. Frances is lobbying the council to get a plaque for him on the village hall...’
There was a loud snap as the lower half of the stick disappeared through the drain cover. ‘Now look what you’ve done,’ I said, throwing the rest of the stick to the floor.
‘Whatever’s the matter?’ said David, following me into the kitchen, the drain abandoned, left to choke alone on the season’s rotting leaves.
I have never been too fond of flowers. In the early days of our relationship, David bought them for me on our first few dates and, once or twice, after a row. He had something to prove back then, the older man, ostensibly still married. It was something he would have been happy to continue with, mindlessly observing the same floral ritual he’d established with his first wife, if I hadn’t faked a pollen allergy and told him he should stop.
Frances’ roses were another matter entirely. With their exposed frills and velvet-soft folds, they reminded me of can-can girls. Scheming, sultry, seductive. Their prettiness, a facade for a more complex truth that lay in their claw-like thorns and fibrous woody stems.
The cottages we lived in each had a small strip of land in front of the property, with a larger garden at the back. Ours was the least remarkable in the row. Its overriding feature was a long rectangular stretch of lawn, with some dwarf conifers we’d inherited from the previous owner lending the patio some interest. Towards the back of the garden was an overhanging oak tree rooted in the farmer’s field beyond. What our garden lacked in ambition, it made up for in simplicity. It was a dog owner’s garden, I told myself. Somewhere Coco and Pepper could roll around in all day, mauling their chew toys and barking at the wind.
Every so often, usually when the lawn became overrun with dandelion heads, I’d get the mower out and give the grass a crew cut. David’s back, a column of crumbling bone and cartilage, prevented him from doing any of the grunt work around the house. It fell to me to keep the place in check.
At night, alone in the conservatory, I could spend whole evenings staring out across the lawn, my gaze fixed on the wide green sweep of field beyond the oak tree. Those were the evenings when David would be out with friends, down at the village pub, or else re-imagining past lives at some fusty local history gathering. If he wasn’t out, he’d be in bed for nine: the pain killers he took throughout the day accumulating in some knockout punch come sundown.
Evenings had become my favourite part of the day: the near-silence of a creaking house, the solitary contemplation of the long green view ahead. I’d sit cross legged on the rattan sofa, back-to-back smoking my daily quota of cigarettes. The dogs asleep in their baskets, the sky deepening to a darker shade of blue.
And that’s when I’d notice them. The roses.
When spring brought the first blooms over the fence, it felt like an imposition: pink, heady distractions that stole the gaze from the horizon, yanking it over to one side. All summer long the breezes would come, scattering confetti petals, the lawn resembling the aftermath of some riotous wedding party. The aerial bombardment would continue into autumn, with petals getting tangled up in the conifer branches or else dancing on the air like a plague of pastel-coloured moths.
The first day we moved in, David had stood in the conservatory surveying the garden, sizing up the tall wooden structures that bordered both sides of the lawn. ‘Good fences make good neighbours,’ he said, ‘as the wise poet wrote.’
And it was true, by anyone’s standards the fences were good ones: sturdy and new, of top quality timber. It was hard to find fault with them; there were no gaps between the panels and, at five and a half feet tall, they offered privacy and protection. If Mr Watkins was out in the garden, I had to stand on tiptoes just to meet his eyes, while Frances – apart from the dance of her hands as she stretched for dead petals – was largely kept from view. That was when we first moved in. But as the months passed and the rose petals blew, as David and I drifted further away from each other on a prevailing current of boredom and indifference, I had come to the conclusion that, as far as Frances Hartwell was concerned, no fence existed that would ever be good enough.
It was hard to pinpoint what it was about her I disliked so much. In the absence of a specific reason, or one irrefutable negative fact, I had come to the conclusion that it was because of her ubiquity. Barely a week passed without the local paper testifying to her gardening prowess in some way. Her face simpered out of its centre pages with annoying regularity while, over the summer months at least, her roses practically had their own column.
She was quite the village celebrity, judging jam-making competitions for the WI and handing out egg and spoon medals to excitable under-fives. She had other irritating traits, minor ones, less forceful in impact – but only if you regarded them in the singular, which I never did. Like the fact that she played golf and wore pearls and turned her shirt collars up to frame her still-tight jawline. If it was chilly she’d drape a cardigan around her shoulders and wear it like a cape. She had a permanent, sun-kissed sheen from all the hours spent gardening and a head of golden highlights that worked to honey out the grey. I imagined she was the type who always wore matching underwear, whatever the occasion, and slept in a satin negligee if such a thing could still be bought.
I dreaded bumping into her on shopping expeditions, or worse, outside the front door. She had a habit of looking through me, of staring without speaking. I never knew whether it was best to keep quiet or just talk through the awkwardness.
It was a different matter if David was with me when we met. ‘Planning a few rounds on the green today, Frances?’ he called out to her the last time. ‘I hope you’ve packed your sunscreen. This afternoon’s set to be a scorcher.’
‘The golf will have to wait I’m afraid, David. The Rotary Club ladies are planning their next fundraiser over lunch and yours truly has been appointed this year’s Chair of the organising committee.’
‘The Chair? Well, how marvellous. Isn’t that marvellous, Corinne?’ He said, turning to me, leaving a pause in the pathway, a space in the conversation where I was supposed to agree.
‘Well, must dash,’ said Frances, when the space went unfilled. ‘Can’t keep those Club ladies waiting, can we? They’re like a wolf pack when they’re hungry.’
David waved. ‘Have a wonderful afternoon,’ he said in a tone that was as genuine as it was generous – too generous – leaving me shuffling in the path, biting the inside of my cheek until I could taste blood.
I told David of my suspicions. ‘You’re imagining things,’ he said, but I wasn’t convinced. Men, rendered blind by bewitchery, can’t even see what’s in front of their own faces at times.
According to Mr Watkins, Frances had once been married to a dentist. He’d been a partner in the village practice and had died some time before we moved here: a brain aneurysm, sudden and devastating. It felled him in the middle of Chloe Miller’s annual check-up, his dead weight pinning the girl in the dental chair until her screams were heard by the receptionist returning from lunch.
‘She took it very badly,’ said Mr Watkins, referring to young Chloe, I assumed, until he gestured with his head in the direction of the roses, forcing my face into a quick recalibration so as not to betray its inward disbelief.
It was hard to think of Frances as the grieving widow, though at the time it happened, I supposed she must have been, to some degree.
Out of nowhere the tears began to roll. I was in Mr Watkins’ kitchen. He patted my hand then stood up to fill the kettle. ‘How long has it been now since your mother?’
Mr Watkins was like a father figure, yet something stopped me from opening up completely and telling him it’s the ones that never lived who cause you the most pain.
Before the riots, before the genie spread skywards, I had never seriously considered leaving London. It had been home for almost all my life. I still had hopes for a family then. The failed rounds of IVF only hardened my resolve. But when my mother’s death coincided with David’s retirement and then another failed implant, the events seemed to demand a life change equal in significance to the sum of them combined. The decision to move, to uproot ourselves, seemed to almost make itself.
‘I need to see a counsellor. I think I’m cracking up,’ I told Maud after our last yoga class. We had gone ahead to the cafe while Nisha packed up at the church hall.
Maud frowned. ‘Grief has its own timetable. It must be allowed to run its course.’
‘It’s getting worse not better. I’m all over the place just lately. I’ve even started talking to mum in the hallway mirror.’
‘It’s just your age, dear. The hormones. It comes to us all eventually. But then it goes again. It passes.’
‘It’s not hormonal. It’s David. It’s coming here. It feels like life is over. Finished.’
The waitress brought our teas on a tray. Maud waited until she’d unloaded the cups before leaning across.
‘You’re quite wrong, Corinne dear. Life is far from over. Only the other day I was reading that the secret services, the spooks, they’re hiring middle aged women like us in droves, Corinne. In droves. No-one notices us you see. We turn invisible at fifty. We walk the world unseen. What better advantage for a spy than that? We’re at the height of our powers; we remain hidden in plain sight.’
I was still some way off fifty, but decided to let it slide.
‘Every situation has its advantages, its compensations,’ she said, blowing on her tea.
‘I doubt there’s too much call for spies in Somerset,’ I said.
‘Oh, you say that but you never know. None of us know. Radical insurgents,’ she said, lowering her voice to a whisper. ‘Militant jihadists. It could be happening here, right under our noses. In the middle of the village green. And besides, who said our assignments would be here. We might get sent out into the field – imagine that – the Middle East, Somalia.’
‘We?’ I said. ‘We would hardly be invisible in Somalia, Maud.’
‘True, true. But what about Egypt? What about Turkey? Just think, the little Western tourist lady dressed casually in loose linens, puffing and panting in the midday heat. She gets separated from her coach party somewhere near the Syrian border and – oh gosh – she drops her guidebook with a fake passport hidden inside its hollowed out middle. She drops it into a litter bin, to be collected later by an undercover bin man, another operative in the field.’
I looked out of the window, willing Nisha to emerge from the church hall opposite. Its wooden doorway, half open, indicated that she was still inside – probably ambushed on the way out by Father Kelly, an inveterate talker.
Maud was on a roll. ‘No-one would suspect us. No-one would even notice we were there.’
‘David would notice,’ I said, glancing across the road again for Nisha. ‘He’s useless on his own. Left to fend for himself he’d be vaulting over next door’s fence in no time, trousers round his ankles...’
I stopped myself, but not soon enough.
Maud’s eyebrows, when I looked, were half way up her forehead. She took a cautious sip of tea. ‘I assume we’re not talking here about dear old Mr Watkins’ fence?’
Of course, the state of David’s back would prevent his actual vaulting over any fence. It had been a complete disaster area all the time I’d known him. Osteoarthritis had worn away several of his vertebrae. At full height, he stood an inch shorter than when we first met. Compressed nerve endings, bones grinding up against bones. Surgery was too risky, the doctors said, and so every few months I’d drive him to the pain clinic in Taunton to get his spine shot with steroids, adding the role of taxi driver to my domestic repertoire, where it joined that of cook, cleaner, occasional gardener, companion, PA, drudge.
‘Do you find her attractive?’ I asked him once, casually, like the thought had just popped into my head. Like the answer hardly mattered.
We were at the harvest festival at the time. Frances Hartwell was judging marrows with the mayor.
‘In what way?’ said David, his eyes locked on Frances who was handling swollen gourds.
‘Physically,’ I hesitated. ‘Sexually.’
David had rolled himself forward onto the balls of his feet. ‘She’s a handsome woman,’ he said. ‘She has a certain… mystique.’
Alone in the conservatory that night I decided that Maud’s thinking was flawed. Frances Hartwell was hardly invisible. And neither, for that matter, was Maud. Somewhere past sixty, Maud had gone the garish route, choosing oversized jewellery and bright hippy prints in an effort to be seen. Her short cropped hair, more salt than pepper, sported a streak of colour at the front – mostly purple, sometimes pink – and on summer days in her own back garden, she’d often sunbathe in the nude.
I had no plans to toy with Mr Watkins’ angina by doing the same in mine. Nor did I plan for a relentless schedule of hair appointments and hormone patches. The IVF had taught me that at least. There was honour in surrender; let nature take me where it will.
Half way through my third cigarette, I heard my mobile beep from somewhere in the kitchen. David was out with friends, and the dogs, asleep, were twitching in their baskets, dreaming of rabbits or playing throw-stick on the Blackdown Hills.
The text was from Maud: Kings Arms general knowledge quiz. David here with X. Same team. Very cosy. Awaiting instructions. Over…
I shut my phone away in the cutlery drawer then went back to the conservatory and lit another cigarette. I looked out of the window. The fence that divided our property from Frances Hartwell’s had started to look a little weather-worn at the panels nearest to the house. They would need to be painted before summer was through. Maybe I could look to do something with the garden at the same time. Nothing drastic: a rockery perhaps. A window box with herbs.
From inside the cutlery drawer, my phone beeped again. More muted this time, with a faint, metallic echo. I thought about putting the phone in the freezer or, better still, the bin. I went out into the garden to get away from its noise and there, as clear as if she was standing next to me in the flesh, I heard my mother whisper to me. I heard her say: ‘Mystique’.
Inside our garden shed, home to the neglected lawn mower, some ancient plant pots and elaborate spiders’ webs, I found a pair of rusty shears.
Stiff at first, reluctant to do their worst, the shears put up some resistance until the rivet at their centre eased itself free from the stronghold of the rusty tack. These were edging shears, long handled, ideal for lending reach, for chopping down tree branches or overhanging flower heads that were scented with betrayal.
I’d only just begun when the dogs came out to join me. Something woke them up – the silent scream of roses, maybe, as their pink heads flew.
The foot stool from the conservatory gave me extra height. I stood on tiptoes, bending over the fence top, angling the shears towards the ground to decapitate the low-down roses, the smaller ones, where the unborn flowers were still curled up in their buds.
I severed deep, until my shoulders ached and my arms bled and the midges, smelling carnage, came to feed from the scratches.
I chopped until there were no more heads to chop. Then I sat down in the middle of the lawn and lit another cigarette. There were rose petals everywhere. The dogs rolled on their backs. From inside the house I thought I heard my mother’s laughter, high and girlish, coming from the hallway. She is back in the mirror now, I thought. And then, high up at Mr Watkins’ window, I saw the corner of his curtains twitch.
VICTORIA BRIGGS’ short stories have been published in UK and US literary journals, websites and anthologies, including Litro, Short Fiction, Unthology, Struco and Prole. She previously won the Asham Award for women writers and lives in London.
I walked down the street with my mother and grandmother to the waste ground where the wood pile had grown as high as the houses. People from the low block of flats stood in their windows, waiting to see it go up in flames. Most of the houses were dark. People who had come out stood all the way around the unlit bonfire, and in the gaps the night was black. The beam of a torch glanced around the top of the pile. It shone on the Guy, the grin on his pillow case head, his legs stuffed with paper tied at the ankles.
It was when the fire had burned down half the size and my mother was poking the potatoes into the white-orange glow, the heat on her face, that she saw him come around the side of the bonfire. I was standing by my grandmother, watching the last of the fireworks. I saw the shape of his ear, the outer edge square against the flames, his face orange and dusty. People had begun to go home. The night was cold on our backs. The sleeves gave him away, the way he wore the cuffs of his thick work shirts folded back.
‘What you doing here?’ she said, standing up. She stepped away from the fire.
‘I saw Chris from over there.’
‘You’re not supposed to be here.’
I peeled away from my grandmother.
‘Hello, kidder,’ my father said, squeezing my shoulder.
He stank of smoke, the shirt blue and black check.
‘So how did you end up here?’ my mother said.
‘There was fireworks all up the motorway. I thought I’d see about taking Chris to the Town Moor.’
‘You can’t just turn up, can you?’
‘Hey, I don’t know, do I? I’m just at the bonfire like everybody else.’
‘Christopher...’ My grandmother led me by the shoulders. ‘Stand there with them lads. They’re going to set the big one off.’
‘You’re spying, then,’ my mother said, her hands in her pockets, the two halves of her old coat wrapped around her.
He had that smirk on his face, as if nobody could get the better of him.
‘Why don’t you piss off away, Ellis?’
When she said it she wasn’t afraid. It was the flicker of pain on his face. He went white, as if he had only come to do a good turn and had been slapped. He would never feel pain without having to hurt her worse. She knew the signs, but then they weren’t signs, it was just him and her, the way they had always been. He clenched his teeth and wrinkled his nose, like a dog about to bite. He had never lifted his hands. She was afraid of something worse than his fists, whatever it was. The times he had stared her down until her muscles froze up, so that she tripped or knocked the bottle of vinegar over, and then he had his reason for calling her a fat cow and storming out to the bar.
‘I’ll go where I want,’ he said, trying to keep the smirk on his face. ‘I could turn up anywhere.’
She turned to look for my grandmother, to say they were going. ‘Come on, Mam,’ she said.
‘Listen,’ he said, grabbing her arm.
‘Watch your hands.’
My grandma walked me to the path by the houses. ‘Come on, pet,’ she said. ‘Just walk away.’ People were looking.
‘You think I don’t know what you’re up to?’
The blame then, like the flames of the bonfire, went through her. Whatever it was, whatever she had done, she had done it.
‘Ellis, get yourself away home,’ my grandmother said.
‘I would, Jean, but it’s a bit crowded our house.’
What he was saying – how could he know? He didn’t take his eyes off her.
‘Have you seen where I live? It’s a hole.’
She wanted to escape into the cold, away from the fire.
‘I know,’ he said. ‘I know all about him.’
He watched her eyes as he said it. When he said ‘him’ the fear sucked over her. He had done that on purpose, making the last word be ‘him’.
She should have gone then. A minute could make all the difference and turn her anger into fear. She had disappointed him. The trap was to see herself the way he saw her. She got lulled into listening, as if she owed him. She wanted to run away, and now she couldn’t, afraid of him, afraid of not standing up to him.
‘You’re mental,’ she said.
‘Am I? The neighbors look out for me.’ He looked around, as if he was looking for one of them to back him up. ‘They want rid of you. They’ve started calling you the street whore.’
She turned away as though he wasn’t standing there. She walked slowly, as calm as she could, across the waste ground and took my hand. She was shaking with nerves. She was disappointed because she thought he had started to lose that power over her. All the time in the back of her mind she had been trying to remember the potatoes.
‘You better watch your backs,’ Ellis shouted after us. ‘You and your fancy man.’
We walked down the ramp to the tunnel under Newbiggin Lane, where I was always afraid somebody would jump out at us. My grandmother had not said anything. My mother’s mind was full. The tunnel and the kids that hung around there weren’t much to be afraid of. They couldn’t make her feel the way my father did. She wished that particular fear would make itself real, as if it would come at her in the dark with arms and legs, so she could kick and scream and pull its hair. She would rather have her face smashed and clamber away from it, bloody but clean of fear. She should have pushed him to that, should have got him to act out the bastard he was. She had only ever been afraid of hints and threats. She never even knew what she was accused of. He would only say, ‘You know,’ so that it was always in her, part of her, always her doing it to herself. He had taught her. He moved from person to person, from thing to thing. He was the rent man, the man from the insurance. He was the number forty-nine bus barreling around the corner, so fast she couldn’t run and catch it. But she had deserved to miss it, having wasted the time putting nail varnish on her toe nails. He was the knife and fork drawer when she pulled it out too far and it emptied itself on the kitchen floor, everything broken into shards, as if everything she saw was only a reflection and somebody had thrown a brick at it. She was a stupid cow, a clumsy bitch. He was the cold bit of steak pie she had taken out of the oven too soon because she was hungry. Fat pig couldn’t even wait. He was her tights when she was pulling them on and they were twisted around her leg and she felt every ounce of fat on her thigh, a sickness in her stomach that made her want to rip the meat off her bones and burn it and say ‘there’ and be free of it. I could be my father when I wouldn’t go to sleep, when I misbehaved and she’d had enough of me. She walked out of my room, and I called after her softly, and she ignored me, daring to want something else, daring to want to be with a man. But she wouldn’t stop. She would live with this fear, live in spite of it, whether it was real or not. Let the bastard kill her. Let him. It would be over with. It would be on his conscience; he was more afraid of that than anything. He was just like her in a strange way, afraid of being found out.
There was nobody in the tunnel, except a boy and girl at the end, their shapes dim beside a broken street lamp. The boy tried to hide her, pressed close against her. He put his face in her shoulder, and they kept still. As the three of us went by, my mother got on the outside of me. The girl peeked out then buried her face in his shirt. I could see that the girl’s skirt was pushed up at the front, that the boy was trying to cover the open flap of his pants. I saw the skin of his hip. There they were, naked before the world. They were innocent in a way my mother had never been. The first time with my father she knew they were going to get caught, disgusted with herself, their pasty white bodies in the cold of his mother’s bed, worrying the whole time about what was leaking out of her, the stain they would leave on the sheets. Getting pregnant never crossed her mind.
I walked with my hands in my pockets, staring at the ground. The air was quiet and cold this far from the fire. Across the valley, the strings of lights showed the pattern of dark streets, the shape of the bank, the valley’s crest. In the distance, fireworks exploded silently like tiny flowers.
‘You want to be careful with him,’ my grandmother said.
She looked at her.
‘You remember what happened to your cousin Jenny.’
She said nothing.
They reached the bottom of the bank, where we had to go our separate ways. She said goodnight, but then we stopped to let a car go by. It was racing down the street, a gold Ford Capri charging down the middle of the street between parked cars. The window came rolling down and the car stopped. The car was full of young lads.
‘Hey, missis – shut your mouths will you – how much to swallow my knob?’
He was talking to my mother, keeping a straight face, despite the stifled laughter coming from the back. He was sixteen or seventeen, his face cheeky.
She held my hand like she was holding a rail on the bus. Her mouth opened, as though she had been expecting him to say that. ‘It’ll cost you five pound, sunshine. I give a discount for little ones. There’s no chance of choking on them.’
A hand from the back seat clapped him on the shoulder, and the others inside the car were laughing. ‘Piss off, you fat cow,’ he said. He stared at her through the open window, the tires squealed, and they sped off down the street. They turned around. ‘Stinking whore,’ he shouted.
My grandmother looked as if she wanted to say she was sorry for what the boy had said, but she said, ‘If you can’t be careful for yourself, you should at least think of Chris.’
‘Mam,’ I said. ‘What’s a fancy man?’
‘It’s like a boyfriend.’
‘Have you got a fancy man?’
‘No, pet. I don’t.’
‘My dad says he’s coming to live at our house again.’
We smelled of smoke. My hair felt thick of it, like the hair of a horse I had once petted at Sample’s farm.
‘He’s not, pet. He’s not coming back.’
‘Is he not?’
We walked a little way in silence.
‘My dad’s a big liar, isn’t he?’
‘He’s just got it wrong.’
After a little while I said, ‘Mam.’
‘My dad’s not very fancy, is he?’
She put her hand on my shoulder and pulled me into her.
‘You’re a funny bugger, our Chris.’
Behind the houses bangers were still going off. A rocket shot from somebody’s back garden.
‘I shouldn’t have said that in front of you, what I said to that lad.’
‘It’s all right.’
‘Did you understand?’
‘I think so.’
‘I hope not.’
I don’t remember when she told me, but the first one she ever touched was Billy Robb’s, at the fourth year Christmas party. The Hokey Cokey came echoing from the Assembly Hall. They hid among the coats in the cloakroom, undoing each other’s pants. She had seen her brother’s in the bath, but never had one in her hand. Billy Robb did the opposite to her – girls’ things didn’t come out, they went in – like he was pushing the button for the lift. They stayed there for ages, keeping still, feeling the draft when the door to the playground opened. The party was always on the last day of school, and she spent the Christmas holidays trying to remember how it felt, too ashamed to put her own hands there. It wasn’t until they got back to school – the start of a brand new year – that she found out people were calling her a pross. After the party, Billy Robb had gone round to Gaz Wightman’s house to tell him. After that, she only wanted to forget about it. She said she had never told anyone else that. That was something she couldn’t have ever told my dad.
‘We were always quick with the comebacks,’ she told me that bonfire night, talking about what she had said to the boy in the car. ‘What a terrible thing to be called. Twice in one night. It’s not even true.’
She would have believed it when my dad said it, but that boy – how could it be true? She had only ever been with my father, and now Kenny. She was as innocent as anything, as innocent as that girl down at the end of the tunnel. She wished when she was younger she could have been with a boy like that, blameless beside a broken streetlight, the air getting at their skin, the sound of footsteps, hiding what they could – but a hiding that hid nothing.
The house was the way we had left it, but it was changed for having spent those hours in the cold, as though everything had been asleep and the living room light wasn’t bright enough to bring everything back to life. She turned on the fire and took off her coat. It was after ten o’clock. She walked me up to my room and I got ready for bed. My sheets looked cold for being clean, and I was still grubby from the fire.
She went downstairs saying she was going to sort out the biscuit tin she and my father had kept their important papers in but the next morning it was still exactly where it was and nothing had been disturbed. My life had not been perfect, but whose had? Nobody had any right to expect it. I had my life, and she had no right to promise anything else.
She always talked about buying new lavender to put in the pomanders she had filled to sweeten the air of her bedroom. She had hated the smell of my father’s heavy shirts and stale socks. I remember the smells competing. The lavender might be faint but it was there. It was her who was there with the boy. She was the girl. Let her be the girl, then, standing there, the cold wall at her back. But she was fatter, the sadness at picturing herself, the shame of a boy so young. Meshing two lives was the trick, the way a good strange dream could do. The life you felt and the one you had to picture. Bits of what you wanted. Kenny turning his attention to her, taking her body over from Ellis. The quiet of the cloakroom, the last day of school, looking forward to Christmas. If only she had been able to remember those moments with Billy Robb the way it had been and not the way it was talked about afterwards. Maybe she was a whore, in a way, because people could tell what she was thinking. Even now, thinking about that young lad in the tunnel, she might think later those thoughts were written on her face. But that was only Ellis digging into her, her digging into herself. God, the years she had missed. The things she might have done if it hadn’t been for Ellis, if she hadn’t waited and put up with it. Oh, God. The things. She might have deserved to be called that after all. The things she might have gotten up to deserve it.
PAUL BARRON grew up in Newcastle upon Tyne and currently lives and teaches writing in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA.
First her spoon ring, then her favorite spoon, probably intended for sugar, but which served instead as a perfect shovel for ice cream. Next the little hollow which shone from her garden, almost as if a piece of sky was buried next to her dahlias every time it rained. Fleeting April thunderstorms now left nothing in her flowerbed but mud. The next loss was her own fault. The shallow china cup, which bloomed with Scandinavian rosettes, shallow enough to cool her tea to the perfect temperature while she still felt like sipping, slipped out of her fingers just as she was lowering it next to her kettle. The uncaring granite gleamed as she swept her hand across its surface, dropping the pretty pieces into the trash. The hill across the way was not as round, filled out with newly returned leaves. Worst of all, her son had the hail damage on her car smoothed as a surprise for her birthday. He’d offered to get its oil changed, not to alter its character. Her smile was a slash. How flat life felt.
SARAH ANN WINN’s poems, prose, and hybrid works have appeared or are upcoming in Five Points, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Massachussetts Review, Passages North, and Quarterley West, among others. Her chapbooks include Field Guide to Alma Avenue and Frew Drive (forthcoming Essay Press, 2016), Haunting in the Last House on Holland Island (Porkbelly Press, 2016), and Portage (Sundress Publications, 2015). She holds an Master of Fine Arts from George Mason University and a Master of Library Science from Catholic University of America. Visit her at bluebirdwords.com or follow her @blueaisling
He warmed the bath for his mother. It was time to put her to sleep. She had asked him to do it during a fever dream. She had asked him six times. He counted them. Once after tea, she looked at him straight and said she had enough of this world. The second time he had returned from a supper at Prudence’s who had given him a haircut. At the second of his mother’s askings he had begun to mark the time inside the broom closet. He used chalk that remained from her days as a teacher. His hair no longer fell fashionably and dandily young into his eyes. He no longer brushed the purposeful bangs away from his forehead with his long narrow fingers, only for the hair to fall coquettishly onto his brow curtaining his blue eyes once again. It was time to move from ornamental to useful. Once his mother asked to sleep for good it was time for him to put aside his boyish fancies that suited his pink cheeks and lean nineteen year old frame so well.
The third entreat happened while he brushed the parlor. She sat upright in her wooden wheelchair and asked that he sweep her feet. Most old maids were old maids because someone had swept their feet and brushed their troubles away. One such trouble was marriage. The true tale is that with all joy there is trouble and it was only the dying or a coward who intentionally brushed their joys away. The coward was afraid of the trouble that attached itself to joy and the dying, courageous in their own right, had no further use for life’s little bits of indulgences.
The evening Prudence asked him to leave his suitors and their intolerable requests of him for her, for a union, he said yes. It was about time that he began to drink strong whiskey and bet on horse races instead of perching on stools or the laps of his suitors as if he were a heavy-bosomed maiden. When he passed his suitors on the street in the square, where respectable people walked and shopped, they made no notice of him. Until their wives or children looked elsewhere, then they would seek his eyes and pitch their longing out over long and short distances. He knew it was time to take a family of his own and become one of those men who visited parlors with dark windows and floorboards that creaked with indictment when they entered. And have a son who would eventually grow into a beautiful boy who tends to his ailing mother to whom you’ve left nothing but the colorful handkerchief of the dandies you fancied and forgotten. But in due time, on the night after Prudence presented her case, mother had asked that he find his father’s shroud. It would hang long over their windows after her death. When he opened the bureau and pulled out the heavy black cloth, mother in her upright wheelchair looked far away and patted the corners of her eyes, although they were dry, with a black handkerchief. The handkerchief was once beautiful, but then, on the night of the shroud, as she dabbed her eyes empty of tears, a loosened lace appliqué hung from the fabric like a defeated jowl.
He counted the shroud and the appliqué as requests four and five. He lined up the fourth line next to the previous three and crossed a diagonal line through them.
When he told mother of his engagement to Prudence she closed her eyes. He touched her arm to see if she was alive and it was warmer than fever warm. She parted her lips and choked out a smoky cough. She was burning from the inside out. He pulled back the thin bed sheet and picked up her frail body. Heavy and simmering he held her away from his frame. He lowered her into the warm bath. She asked for sleep and turned her face into the porcelain tub as if pressing her head into a pillow. Her head sunk toward her chest and the water covered her nose and mouth. He watched from a respectful distance.
Soon her head tilted back so her mouth and nose could inhale. With her eyes shut she looked like a fish the way her lips closed around the air. She tried once more tucking her head into her chest so the water would cover her lips and nose. Again her head bobbed back so she could swallow air. On the third try, she opened her eyes asking him to help her sleep. He nodded a slow solemn tilt of his head forward. He may have followed with a melancholy courtesy to give the occasion the regard it deserved but it was time. Her body, as if fighting her mind’s decision to die, kept overriding her choice and drawing breath. As her head began to tilt back once again, and before the tip of her nose could pierce the water, he put one hand on her shoulder and the other on her head. His touch was gentle. That is until her heels planted against the other end of the bath and braced as her knees pushed up. He didn’t expect the force and pushed back with greater urgency. Bucking against the tub the body pale and thin flung itself against every surface searching for leverage. He was on one bended knee, the other pushed against the tub as water spirited out of the bath wetting the walls and floorboard leaving indicia of struggle, badges of fraud against her request to go quietly to sleep. When her limbs stilled and the water calmed, he pulled his arms from the tub. His muscles ached from the triumph. He breathed for a bit and then used a cloth to dry his arm and hands. He opened the broom closet, found his scoreboard, and marked the sixth request next the fourth and diagonal fifth.
LEESA FENDERSON’s work has appeared in Callaloo Journal and Uptown Magazine. She is in her third year in Columbia University’s MFA program, where she teaches in the Undergraduate Creative Writing Program. She is an attorney and lives in New York. She writes fiction and non-fiction.
Mike and I are in the car, heading for the countryside, at his request. It's a Sunday morning and I have a hangover. At this time I would normally be recovering in my gloomy bedroom in my dank house, curtains closed and telly on. But Mike phoned me early on and insisted we go for a walk in the hills.
Hungover or not, I agreed straight away, because lately Mike has become reclusive and we are all worried about him. He has been unhappy for months, since he came back from America without his wife Lucy (or girlfriend or whatever she was). They broke up, and Mike has a severe case of heartbreak. Or so I assume. Mike is introverted and stoic: a man's man. So he's not actually admitted to any heartbreak – but he barely leaves the house, and all the life seems drained from his movements.
But now he suddenly fancies a Sunday morning stroll in the hills, so that's good news. For him I will brave the daylight.
He drives us out to the peak district. He seems better. Not his old self, not quite, but less fragile and silent than he's been recently. We make conversation about nothing as bright fields flit past outside.
He parks somewhere near Edale. I open the door and step out. The clear, open air, the sky a million miles above us, beautiful sunshine.
Fuckin hell, I say, it feels good to be outside.
Mike nods, and we set out. Through a gate and up a gently sloping path. He has some idea where we're going, and naturally I don't, so I follow meekly behind. He strides ahead with a large pack on his back.
He talks! For six months I've hardly heard him utter more than a mumble, but now he speaks at length, about the landscape and the area and his memories of other walks when he was a kid. Mike always talks in short, simple sentences, straight to the point, like Japanese poetry – though he'd find that comparison absurd, of course.
I stumble awkwardly after him, mumbling and grunting and wishing I'd bought something to drink other than water. I start to feel a little sick.
Want a drink? asks Mike.
I wave my water bottle at him and say nah.
I mean a real drink, he says.
Well in that case, I say. Mike produces from his bag a bottle of red wine. He removes the screw cap and we take turns to swig from the bottle.
Not bad, I say, plenty of nose.
He strides onwards. He seems enlivened by the surroundings, and the wine. I don't understand Mike. I never have, I suppose. A man whose inner life remains inside.
We follow the slants and swells of the dusty path, gradually ascending. The air is still and warm. We stop for a while on a bulge of rock with a good view and exchange swigs from the bottle of wine. Across a shallow valley a row of five green hills are clenched like knuckles, as though a giant punched the earth from below. I moan for a while about my house and my awful job. Mike suggests I move out and resign. Ever the pragmatist.
We set off again. It really is a beautiful day, warm and clear, the kind of day you don't often get in England. I really can't stand clichés, but there are moments when you are moved to use one and seem to hear its truth for the first time: today is the kind of day that makes you feel good to be alive.
We follow stony paths up green hills, clamber over stiles, walk along rocky ridges with marvelous views into valleys and over plains. We pass a few people out walking and say hello, greeting strangers like Victorians. We pass a cliff face where climbers are clinging to a sheer wall of rock.
Mike sets a brisk pace. In between gasping for breath I tell him a long complicated story I read recently in a magazine, about a persecuted Italian Renaissance scientist. Eventually I realise I've forgotten the ending, so I invent one in which he builds a rocket and flies to Saturn to escape the Medicis. Mike reacts with his usual measured interest.
After a couple of hours we find ourselves up on a deserted outcrop overlooking a broad vista of parkland. It's very warm. I take off my light jacket. Mike surveys the area. We stand in silence for a while.
Shall we make a little fire? he asks.
A fire? It's not cold!
Well, says Mike, there's a couple of things I want to burn. If that's okay.
I look at him for a while. You want to burn something?
Mike glances away, a bit embarrassed. He says: I've got some things I need to get rid of. Things from Lucy. Didn't want to bin them. Burning seemed better.
Oh, I say. What things?
Mike walks over to the edge of the outcrop, takes off his backpack and sits down on a boulder. He opens the pack.
Photos, letters, some trinkets. Just the stuff that will burn.
He begins taking stuff from his bag – piles of letters and photos, a piece of wood with some message scratched into it. And things for making a fire as well, firelighters and a little kindling. He lays it all out on the ground around him.
Mike, I say, are you sure it's a good idea, I mean, are you sure…
It's definitely over, if that's what you mean. Time to move on. I just think it would help to get rid of all this.
Mike gets up and starts gathering wood. I go over and look at the stuff all laid out on the floor. I pick up a pile of photographs and look through them. Mike and Lucy, in bars, on holiday, in love. The usual couples photos. I stop at a photo of her on a beach, in a bikini. She is certainly beautiful. Green eyes, a knowing smile, a delicate tattoo of a vine crawling from her shoulder to the base of her neck. I put the photos down and pick up the piece of wood. It's old and seamy, splintered at the ends, and on it she has carved a message. Some private symbol I don't recognise, a letter L for Lucy. and the single word Always.
It seems so sad to burn these things. Mike is a total mystery to me. Still, it's up to him.
Help me get some wood, he calls.
We spend some time gathering wood. All the wood I bring back is pronounced unsuitable for one reason or another. Mike tells me I'd be useless in the wild. I tell him he's useless in civilisation.
Mike makes a circle from rocks and prepares a fire in its centre. I finish off the wine. Mike produces another bottle from his bag and hands it to me. Since I'm not of any use in the fire-making process, I sit on Mike's backpack and drink.
He gets a preliminary fire going at last. It's about eleven in the morning by this time. He picks up the first pile of letters, ready to burn, and stands before the fire. He pauses.
Not so good with words, he says, more your area. Want to say something?
Yeah, he says, just say anything, doesn't matter what really.
I feel awkward for a moment, then experience a moment of inspiration. I stand up, across the fire from Mike. I raise a hand theatrically. I think for a few seconds before beginning.
Dear Universe, I intone loudly, please accept this offering, as we know you will, with utter indifference. We commit to the quantum grasp of your fires the relics of a brief and fiery love, in the brief and fiery life of one of our brief and fiery species. Commit them to the past, as you commit to the past every succeeding instant of every day, with unerring regularity. May their constituent atoms and subatomic particles take the next step in the great cycle that forms stars and suns and black holes and quasars… and hills, and grapes, and winemakers and other humans… all of them to flare into existence for periods of time, ultimately to return to the cold bosom of your indifference. We thank you, universe, for the gift of a meaningless existence, the most free and wonderful existence of all, and we offer to you these trinkets which, to our mere human brains, seem to mean a great deal indeed.
I splash a little of the wine into my hand and dab it on my forehead. Mike comes around the fire and I dab a little on his forehead too. He is smiling tolerantly. He returns to his side of the fire and throws the letters into the blaze. They begin to burn. He follows them, bit by bit, with all the keepsakes of the love he has lost, while I stand and watch in silence. For the first time I feel like I understand Mike.
The flames flicker, the heat warps the air between us. Something unreal happens. In some way I can't describe, things feel different. The flames take many shapes. I feel the heat on my face, and see the fire even when I close my eyes. I feel an obscure connection with some imagined ancient ancestor, some Celtic magician burning offerings and casting spells on an outcrop above an Irish bog. In the heart of the fire I see the shadows of countless sorcerers and artists, weaving spells on indifferent reality and transforming themselves in the process. Figures flicker in the heat, a man and woman, sketched in the hot substance of the ever-passing, the tracery of love.
I bow deeply to the fire, and Mike does the same. He raises his head to watch something drift into the sky.
MATT HARRIS is a writer based in Liverpool whose short fiction and poetry have appeared in Confingo, The Alarmist, Hoax and others.
It was cotton season. The white stuff lined the road for miles on either side of the farmhouse where I’d grown up. I squinted out at it, holding aside the old curtains to reveal the sun climbing towards high noon. My sister Georgie and her husband John had gotten up early that morning and started cleaning, determined to continue the momentum we’d built up yesterday, sorting through the mass of personal effects that one collects over eighty years of life. I’d slept in, guiltily enjoying the opportunity to rest without being woken early in the morning by my children. My sons, Geoffrey and Nicholas, were ten and seven years old respectively, and my husband Theo had taken them home after the funeral so they could get back to school and he could get back to work. Theo was a doctor, and the hospital was not overly flexible with unplanned vacation time. Life goes on. So I was left in west Texas with my sister and her husband and the dust and my grief. Back where it had all started.
King Cotton, ruler of our hearts, deliver us. Bringer of purity, money in the bank. When I was a kid we’d have to go with our father to the cotton gin to separate the seeds from the fibers, to fetch a good price. Tufts of white floated through the air, settling on hair, on clothes, on the old farm dog sleeping by the door. The noise of the cotton gin hung in the background, a witness to the fulfillment of another year’s harvest. When we got a good price we’d stop at the ice cream shop on the way home and my father would buy us a banana split each and we’d laugh at the days to come. When we got a bad price or the harvest was poor we’d drive home not talking while my father played Johnny Cash on the radio. We heard a lot of Johnny Cash.
Our mother had been killed a few days earlier in a car crash, leaving us reeling, trying to pick up the pieces. I was madness, I was grief, I was trapped in a cavern of ice. It had been about a year since our father’s heart had finally given out and our mother had just begun to try to live her own life after fifty years of marriage, alone in that old farmhouse in Hunter County. We all knew her mind was starting to go. We should never have left her alone, but she insisted on staying in that house and we had children, husbands, jobs and lives in other cities.
Then we got the call. A farmer had found her car flipped in a ditch near his field. Death had come swiftly. She’d gone around that curve hundreds of times. Thousands, maybe. The sheriff said it had been raining and she’d taken the turn too fast. An accident, they said. Now it was three days since the funeral and we were facing the prospect of clearing out her house.
I got dressed quickly that morning, slipping out of the sweatpants I’d been using as pajamas and digging a clean pair of jeans out of my suitcase, scrounging around in the hopes of finding a blouse that wasn’t wrinkled. There wasn’t anyone to dress up for. In ten minutes I was ready to go, running a brush through my hair and then stumbling out into the hall and downstairs to the kitchen, where I was gratified to see that there was some coffee left in the pot. I poured myself a cup and sat at the kitchen table, taking the seat that had been mine growing up. It faced towards the back of the house and if I angled my head right I could see out of the window behind the kitchen sink and into the backyard. Our ancient tire swing hung from the mulberry tree, swaying a little in the breeze. I waved at John as he walked past, carrying a paint scraper. The plan was to repaint the west wall. It had taken a beating a few years ago when an old crape myrtle fell against it during a big storm. The paint was scratched and a couple of the boards were cracked a little, but we’d never gotten around to doing anything about it and it hadn’t seemed to bother Mom. The wall was against the garage, and no one was out there much these days. John smiled back, raising a couple of fingers in a mock salute. Georgie followed a couple of steps behind, carrying hedge clippers. She waved at me, pulling a face that had always made me laugh growing up. I smiled.
Personal effects. The accumulated material wealth of a lifetime. My own mother. Our relationship had never been easy. She’d always had a firm idea of what a daughter of hers ought to be, a matter of working hard and not letting your mascara run. We’d get into screaming fights back in high school when I’d dated the wrong boy – Thomas O’Connor, a Catholic! – or worn the wrong thing – ‘Change out of that skirt immediately, young lady’ – or spent time with the wrong crowd – ‘I won’t have you hanging around that Garner girl, you know what kind of family she comes from? Look at me when I’m talking to you, you lazy bitch!’
So it had been a relief when I’d gone off to college, and I’d taken classes over the summer when I could so I wouldn’t have to spend too much time at home. But the white hot fights had cooled over the years into occasional mild tussles, and she’d cried for happiness at my wedding and when she’d held my firstborn. We’d settled into a truce and let the years roll by. I didn’t visit home much. And now I was going through her house with a trash bag, brutally sweeping things from shelves and pulling them from drawers.
Finishing my coffee, I started going through the kitchen, clearing out all the old food and hauling it outside. I sorted through an immense collection of Tupperware, through pots and pans that I still remembered from childhood. Here’s what she used to make pasta, here’s what she always cooked that awful casserole in, here’s the pan that has a dent in it from when she would drink too much gin and swing it at my father, miss, strike the wall. Or the little girl who was crouching underneath the kitchen table. Some things went into boxes to be donated. The will had not been specific, only said that we should divide things equally. Outside, I could hear the soft sounds of Georgie and John working, snatches of their conversation occasionally floating through the open window. I cleared out the pantry, a dark little room that always seems a few degrees warmer than the rest of the house, top shelves stacked deep with preserves which I now tossed into the trash. It had been my favorite spot for hiding when I was growing up.
The kitchen was now mostly empty, aside from a few casseroles people from the church had sent over for us. I left them stacked in the refrigerator, half eaten and covered in tin foil. I turned my attention to the glass-doored cabinets where the good china was still sitting in its perpetual light layer of dust. It had been a wedding present for my parents decades ago, but it was mostly for show. I could only remember my mother getting the plates down a few times in my life, usually for Christmas or when we had the pastor from church over for dinner. When I was about seven years-old I’d gotten the idea to use a couple of the little cups for a tea party with my cat, which was supposed to be an outside cat anyway. I’d accidentally knocked a chip out of one of the little cups. Reaching into the back of the cabinet I could see that it was still there, pushed to the back where no one would see. I ran my finger over the chip, remembering.
My mother broke her wooden spoon over my backside when she’d found out about that.
I got a cardboard box and started to pack away the dishes. I was debating how best to wrap them to keep them from breaking when I heard yelling from outside. John swore loudly. Alarmed, I put the dishes down and walked to the back door, looking out into the yard. Stepping out of the door, I could hear a buzzing in the air, and that’s when I saw it – the swarm. What seemed like hundreds of bees were streaming from the side of the house where Georgie and John had been working in the direction of our back field.
Ahead of the swarm, my sister and her husband were sprinting, jerking madly, swatting, straining. I froze for a moment, panicked. Late night cable specials about killer bees flashed through my mind along with books about pioneers I’d read as a child. The people in those books always seemed to be accidentally hitting a bee hive and having to run from the swarm. Inevitably, they would find some pond or lake to jump into and escape the flying menace. But this was west Texas, and there weren’t any ponds around.
That’s when I remembered the creek. Georgie and John were running away from the house and the main road and away from me, making like mad down the narrow dirt road that was supposedly maintained by the county. I jumped in the red truck we kept around for doing farm work and followed after as quickly as I could, unsure of what to do. Should I call somebody? If so, who? Who could stand against the madness of the swarm?
The buzzing mass writhed between us, mixing with the dust that my unfortunate sister and her husband were kicking up as they ran. They were waving their arms about, trying to protect themselves, and I could tell they were being stung, were in pain, but the water was only about one hundred yards ahead and if they could just make it then maybe the bees would dissipate, their ire foiled and their anger quenched by the muddy waters. I followed behind them in the truck as closely as I could, but they didn’t seem to have noticed me. Being attacked by bees tends to distract you from the details.
When we were kids we used to swim there sometimes, throwing in rocks to scare the snakes away and slipping out of our shoes on hot August days. We just called it the creek, but once our mother took us aside and told us that it wasn’t just any creek but part of something larger: the Prairie Dog fork of the Red River that diverged from its massive ancestor and made its slow winding way through our county, losing majesty as it turned. In dry years there was hardly any water in it. But this had not been a dry year. I watched as they scrambled down the bank and fled splashing into the brown water, parking as closely as I could to edge of the river.
That’s when we learned these were killer bees, and killer bees don’t act like the bees in cartoons. Instead of dissipating, the swarm hovered over the water, waiting to sting again and again when Georgie and John came up for air. Killer bees aim mostly for the head and neck. We learned that too.
I realized that I would have to leave the safety of the truck. ‘Georgie!’ I called, opening the door but still halfway inside the car, desperate to make them hear yet terrified of drawing the bees’ attention. ‘Georgie! John! Get in the truck!’
They had gone back under the water, didn’t hear. Georgie told me later that in that moment she was sure she was going to die. I flung open the door to the back seat so they could get inside quickly and, before I could think too much about it, plunged down the bank.
In the river, it was hell. The bees began to sting me as I reached under the water. I felt hair and gave a mighty tug. Georgie came up, spluttering. She looked surprised. Her face was swelling.
‘Grab John! Get in the truck!’ I called above the buzzing, trying not to open my mouth too far for fear that a bee might get in.
Understanding flashed in her eyes and the next moment the three of us were scrambling back up the bank. John lost a shoe in the mud where the river turned to earth but we made it into the truck, gasping, slamming the doors behind us. A couple of bees had gotten in the open door but John smashed them mercilessly with hands and his remaining shoe.
Two hundred and forty-six stings between the three of us. That’s what they told us at the hospital. By the time they’d gotten all the stingers out they found that Georgie had gotten stung ninety-three times. John had been stung more – one hundred and twelve times. He was the one who had had the misfortune to first anger the bees. For myself, I’d been stung forty-one times trying to get them out of the river.
The Hunt County hospital was miniscule. We must have taken up half of the beds. There were no private rooms so they put the three of us in beds next to each other and kept the curtains drawn back so we could see each other. The doctor said that a human can survive ten bee stings for every pound of body weight, so we knew we’d be all right. But boy, it sure felt like we were dying.
They gave us something to reduce the swelling but my face still looked like a ball of playdough some two-year-old had thought it would be fun to squeeze. I was the first one up, staring at my face morosely in the bathroom mirror. Well, staring out of the eye that wasn’t swollen shut, anyway. I wondered what we were supposed to do about the bees in the house.
I heard Georgie calling from the bed.
‘Hey,’ I said, sitting down next to her. ‘How are you feeling?’
‘Like I just got stung by a bunch of killer bees,’ she said flatly, mumbling around swollen lips. ‘You?’
‘About the same,’ I replied, then sighed. ‘Listen, what are we going to do about the house? I mean, can we get the bees out?’
‘You’ll have to call the fire department,’ said one of the nurses who’d been listening. She came over to stand near us. ‘My cousin had a bunch of killer bees in his shed about a month back. Call the fire department and they can use their hose to spray them out. Worked for Billy.’
None of us really wanted to go back to the house, but we agreed that someone ought to be there when the fire department came. Since Georgie and John were still pretty out of it, the responsibility fell to me. When I got back the fire truck was already there and a couple of young firefighters were setting up the hose. With a jolt I recognized that one of them was the child of a girl I’d gone to school with. She’d gotten pregnant our senior year of high school, never left our hometown. The child’s name was Christopher. I’d seen pictures on Facebook.
I stayed in the truck, parked a little ways off where I could see what they were doing. I was embarrassed by my swollen face and still feeling a little ill from the venom. Whatever they were going to do they could do without me.
That plan didn’t last long. Christopher came over and tapped on the window. I hoped he wouldn’t recognize me, but of course he knew whose house this was.
‘Um, ma’am? Sorry, are you Mrs. Wilson?’ he said.
I stepped out of the truck. ‘Yes?’
‘We’re about ready to get started. It looks like the bees have built a hive right into the wall. The boards are a bit rotten and I guess they just moved in.’
That wall, I knew, bordered the garage on the inside of the house. How had my mother not heard the buzzing? But of course it had been years since anyone had spent much time in the garage. It had been my father’s workshop once.
‘Will you be able to get them all out?’ I asked.
He nodded. ‘We think so. Could cause some damage to the wall though.’
‘Do what you have to do.’
I leaned against the truck. They started spraying.
Georgie, John, and I met up back at the house the next afternoon. They’d been released from the hospital that morning, a little worse for wear but firmly on their way to recovery. We had been thinking of fixing up the house a bit and renting it out, but now we decided to sell the house as it was, fully furnished, a fixer upper.
The day turned to evening, and then into two days, then three. I was burning through my vacation days at work, but I couldn’t leave yet. We combed through her closet, stripped the beds in all the rooms but left the mattresses groaning silently on their frames. These would be sold with the house. We pulled down decades-old photos from the walls and divided them up, wrapped them carefully in newspaper so the frames wouldn’t break when we took them back to our houses. I let Georgie have the photo albums. She gave me the old record player.
We mopped and vacuumed and dusted behind things that had probably not been moved in either of our lifetimes. There was no trash service so we piled those things we couldn’t save or donate into a pile in the field out back. It grew higher and higher as the house grew more and more bare. At first, I worried that the bees would return, but we were left in peace except for a few of their corpses that had fallen from a high shelf when we’d first cleaned out the garage, causing John to go pale, Georgie to scream, and me to jump about a foot in the air.
When it was finished and the last of the garbage had been tossed on the pile, John had gone into town for gasoline. Georgie and I sat out back on the old porch swing and sipped Arnold Palmers we’d made from the last of the sweet tea and lemonade that had been in the fridge. I re-opened the box of china and it sat open at our feet. Neither of us really wanted it. I was drinking out of the chipped cup. There was a light breeze and the whole world seemed to give off a lazy hum. Tomorrow someone was coming to look at the house, and I would be going back home to my family.
People out there still burned their trash. When John got back he poured the gasoline onto the trash pile, lit a match, tossed it on. Georgie and I got up and walked over near him. She took her husband’s hand and I wished Theo was there.
The flame bloomed from where the match had fallen near the center of the pile and raced outward from there, fed by the accelerant. Smoke began to rise, black and billowing, from the stinking heap. I hesitated a moment before throwing the china cup into the flames. It shattered. We watched, stepping back every now and then as the heat grew until none of us could breathe and we retreated, coughing, to our cars.
MARY WHITE is an MFA student at Texas Tech University, where she specialises in fiction writing.
The view from the window is concrete and railings. Perhaps it was always buildings and metal, an impression of light simply my memory’s distorted photography.
Inside my mentor’s study, the once sky-blue paint has cracked, the shiny parquet floor turned to dull fish skin; dead scales flake. Clive’s battered office chair is emptier than the hollowed room, gutted of desk, books, pictures. Along the walls, damp has drawn its own ghosts in place of his animated outline.
Cold steel shocks me as my hand brushes against the radiator. It’s hard to believe now how much of my world started here: turning the globe on Clive’s table; spinning questions through the air for him to catch, twist and glide back at me. His stare was unflinching when he was impatient for the right answer. But he’d tilt his head slightly to one side when considering a complex argument, or when his expression softened, momentarily, in response to a kitten’s miaow. His smile was hard-won validation.
Hearing, speech, sense, even his cats gone before the end! his neighbour tells me. We shouldn’t really be in here. It has to be cleaned, but seeing as you knew him...
Wafts of feline piss lurch at me from dark corners, as I find myself drawn away from the room’s shadows towards the closed window.
Dead man’s shoes was what Clive called his job the last time I saw him. A mug’s game, Kerry! Forget study. Travel, see the world, work for a company that pays!
And here I am, back where the spinning started, jolting in his footsteps. I start teaching on Monday, though I’ve no idea what knowledge he’s left in my hands. Most likely, all or nothing.
I open the window a crack, feel rain and sky spill in.
S. A. Leavesley was shortlisted in the Gatehouse Press New Fictions Prize 15/16, is an award-winning poet, fiction writer and journalist, who also runs V. Press poetry and flash fiction imprint. Publications include a winning fiction in the Oxford Today thriller flash competition 2014, flashes in The Ofi Press Literary Magazine, Rockland, Jellyfish Review, and Elbowroom (forthcoming), with longer short fiction published by Legend Press. Websites: www.sarah-james.co.uk and http://vpresspoetry.blogspot.co.uk
New Orleans had been a disappointment: pre-mixed cocktail syrups churning in industrial plastic drums; laminated menus of identikit Cajun staples; endless voodoo and mardi gras souvenirs; tired drag acts; the cockroaches lumbering across the hotel floor coupled with the dire warnings about not venturing out in the local neighbourhood after dark for fear of becoming victim to violent assault and robbery. The gratuitous baring of breasts had proved an unexpected thrill – how come the guide book left that out? – but it was a novelty that soon wore out. It was Blackpool relocated. And the worst of it was that coming here was my idea. She wanted to go to Miami. Get a suntan.
Leaving the city after five nights – five nights where we drank the over-sweetened cocktails with increasing and desperate urgency – we stopped at a McDonald’s. She was hungry. The girl taking our order had bad skin and braces on her teeth. She was charmed by our accents. Do you come from London? Is it real pretty? Her soft Southern drawl raising a pitch, as though just meeting two people from Britain was the fulfilment of a lifelong dream. Did no visitor to New Orleans venture out this way? We were still within the city limits on the main road out to the bayous.
We had booked to stay in an old colonial-style bed and breakfast. The rooms felt grand compared to the hotel in New Orleans, and the welcome was warm. In bed that night, we watched a film. They had a whole library of DVDs to choose from. Good ones too. She had never seen Citizen Kane, so we watched that. I envied her ability to lose herself in a film: in a fiction. I would watch her – eyes widening, the odd little gasp, or frown – living the film. Being in the moment. I could never be like that. I was always thinking about the lighting rig just out of shot. Imagining Orson Welles leaning forward on his canvass-backed director’s chair, metal megaphone gripped in hand. Wondering about what happened to the extras – this highpoint in their failed acting careers – creating an anti-climactic biography for them filled with bad whiskey, cheap motels and doomed relationships. After the film, we slept.
Following a day kayaking through the bayou – she was terrified of the alligators, snakes and spiders – we had more or less run out of things to do. The guide book was no help. At least in Miami you could just sit on the beach and get a suntan, she reminded me.
So the next day we just drove. Follow our noses, I said. We’re bound to discover something of interest. Some stunning piece of landscape the guide book writers haven’t seen, where nobody else is. We’ll find extraordinary diners which only the locals know about. We will delight the waiting staff with our quaint accents and tiny British appetites. We will impress them with our pioneer spirit. America will be ours. I could tell she wasn’t convinced, but she acquiesced. Driving out on the interstate, I had succeeded in convincing myself that our journey of discovery was to yield excitement, adventure and surprise. Optimism and instinct were my co-pilots as I pulled the car off on a spur road, heading for who-knew-where-exactly, watching with greedy eyes for Louisiana to reveal itself.
Time slipped by. Optimism and instinct bailed out to be replaced by boredom and impatience. A strained silence filled the car. Her gaze was locked stubbornly on the passenger window. When she did look my way, her eyes were brimming with barely-concealed hostility. She was hating this. Industrial plants clung to the banks of the roiling, brown Mississippi – wider than a motorway – whose smokestacks funnelled grey-blue gases into the oyster sky. Long, straight roads connected town after town in which high-rise signage advertised cheap meal deals at the Wendy’s and Subways and Taco Bells that squatted below them. Each new town as similarly unremarkable as the previous one.
We stopped to get a drink. A young black man, maybe nineteen or twenty, stood outside the store watching me. The forbidding warnings of the anxious proprietors of our hotel in New Orleans crowded my thoughts; an uneasy feeling crept over me. I roamed the store, trying to not to look like a tourist: feigning nonchalance and desperately masking my childish curiosity at all the different brands, attempting not to marvel at the packaging and the out-of-control portion sizes. On the way out, I flung the door open with an effortful confidence and brio borrowed from any number of American actors I had observed in any number of films I had seen. The young man, who had clearly been waiting for me, stepped into my path. I stopped – as though the director of the film had barked for the protagonists to freeze. The man spoke to me in a voice insanely low and drawling. He sounded tired or drunk or stoned, or some ominous combination thereof. I had no idea what he was saying. Was he trying to mug me? Was he going to shoot me? Adrenalin fuelled my veins. He moved closer. I could smell him – sweet and oniony. He was taller, wider. He gestured for a cigarette. I told him I had no cigarettes. He regarded me quizzically. You from England? he asked. I nodded. He looked me up and down. That’s cool, he said. And I went on my way, exhilarated by the encounter with this slice of real Americana.
Back in the car, she asked what had occurred between myself and this dangerous representative of the American underclass. She placed her hand on mine and searched my face with eager eyes. Did he threaten me? Demand money? Did he have a weapon? She thought we had finally found what we had been looking for: the real Louisiana, the real America. The America I had promised her. That hidden country the guidebooks leave uncharted and undocumented. I wanted to please her. To affirm that, yes, we had stepped out of our roles as mere sightseers to become a new kind of tourist seeking authenticity, experience and jeopardy; that my story of facing down this ruthless, violent totem of broken America would be one that we would endlessly recycle, retell and embellish. That this was the beginning of a new journey for both of us. When I told her the truth – benign and banal – the light went from her eyes. She took her hand from mine and I felt her heat dissipate from my skin.
Can we just go back now, she asked. I nodded and flipped open the road map we had abandoned for the day. Do you even know where we are? The name of this place?
I stared blankly at the tracery of coloured intersecting lines, stubbornly refusing to yield up its secrets.
Are we even on the right page?
GC PERRY’s stories have appeared in Litro, Shooter, Open Pen, Hobart, Neon, Bull, Prole, and elsewhere. He lives in London.
I’ll tell you
we’re never ready for winter. Never
enough firewood cut, hay put up.
Pipes freeze. Milk cow’s udders freeze
when their legs collapse under the weight of cold.
I know cold. Know the silent sleeping house,
the quiet of pasture on a windless day, of bloodshed
and dead calves. The children watch me from the window,
standing in the storm, alone, holding up Rosie’s head;
ice slicing through my clothes, now soaked and frozen
to my skin. Ice holds her to ground.
The dark freezes the rain, prairie grass whistling
in the sharp‐scented wind. I’m breathless
as my limbs ache, buckle under weight of meat, bones,
milk, blood, and cud. Boots slip in cow shit and mud.
Come on girl, I whisper.
Don’t give up. Gloves soaked, fingers bleeding. We’re never
ready for winter.
DANELLE LEJEUNE is a wanderer, a beekeeper, a farmer, a mother who gave up on art for nearly twenty years until an alligator in the marshes off the coast of Georgia convinced her to look twice. Since then she has been published in Literary Mama, Red River Review, and Fifth Wednesday Journal. Forthcoming work in Whale Road Review and Red Paint Hill Press. Her photos have appeared in Portland Review and Flyway Journal. She’s been a poet in residence at Vermont Studio Center, attended Charles University in Prague, and is the assistant to the Director at Ossabaw Writer’s Retreat (where the alligator lives...)
October is flesh
this body is a pyre—have
you seen the colour of necks coming
out of a flowerpot or have
you seen the feelings
of headstones broken
--after the air,
monoxides & two
meant for each other; a
time, where we go
as moons. the real
enter a suitcase nor wear
is open to
till the river takes your face, stranger; till each of the black lines enter the body of a mollusk, like children say a sandcastle needs no dress but only a moon to live in, to last long like children laughing away their kites; till there is a skin too dark for a map to stay — who will tell the people there is a garden here that doesn’t forget its visitors, till a thread ties silence on to the red apple full of Anne’s metal — till tomorrow, when we shall get out of our flowerpots and go back to the peephole, back to tomorrow: only a mirror calls out the country in your nightgown, to the direction of a sheet of carbon till there is a skin to visit the horizon
it was the last she said: this pillow
--the wire cloth will not
hold lightning nor
is a place
the door that is neither
a ghost nor
DAVID ISHAYA OSU was born in 1991 in Nigeria. He is a board member of the Babishai Niwe Poetry Foundation based in Uganda. His poetry appears in publications including: Chiron Review, CutBank, Vinyl, Transition, Maintenant 10: A Journal of Contemporary Dad Writing & Art. David is a fellow of the Ebedi International Writers Residency, and is selected for the 2016 USA Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop. He is currently assistant poetry editor for Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel, and he is at work on a debut poetry book.
At night, to keep the wind out of the rooms, he would place loose pages from the book in the crevice, exactly like this. She waited for what seemed like hours, leaving her passport in a locked box at the hotel. Only weather breaking the silence. Always mourning or being mourned, it all seemed the same to her, traveling from one city to the next under a sky filled with sunless light:
Why would anyone find the train schedules interesting when it is possible to learn about astronomy. What one fears most in the afterlife. It is the wind shattering each of the windows. What is nearly unsayable to friends. The little declaration that lodges at the back of her throat.
KRISTINA MARIE DARLING is the author of over twenty books of poetry. Her awards include two Yaddo residencies, a Hawthornden Castle Fellowship, and a Visiting Artist Fellowship from the America Academy in Rome, as well as grants from the Whiting Foundation and Harvard University’s Kittredge Fund. Her poems and essays appear in The Gettysburg Review, New American Writing, The Mid-American Review, The Iowa Review, The Columbia Poetry Review, Verse Daily, and elsewhere. She is currently working toward both a PhD in Literature at SUNY-Buffalo and an MFA in Poetry at New York University.
Lesson 1 – Action
Let the cloud colors out in long furls
of lilac, tangerine, and ash,
so the sky appears to be escaping from the frame.
Let the jib curl
like a fat, white apostrophe
above the beat-flat bow turned east.
Clutter the horizon with crests and troughs,
troughs and crests and sea foam flung skyward.
Let the gulls trail green kelp in their bills
and their orange feet drag behind them.
Make the girls’ screams as bright and solid
as the stones they skip across the water,
one, two, three, eleven!
Let the horse-head seal upon his rock
resist the brain’s instruction to flee
as the charcoal fin pierces the water.
Lesson 4 – Distance
A white-necked magpie floats overhead.
One sense of distance can be achieved
by two lines drawn diagonally, if
as they move across the page the space between them
diminishes to a thread. This will lead the eye deep
into the field or to the stone walls that frame
the groves or the green shadows where, now,
the magpie mutters like a priest in his confessional.
Who does not need forgiveness?
The instructor demonstrates how horizontal lines drawn parallel
define what’s near and what the eye might imagine by bending light,
here, the threshold of my door, there, East of everything,
the Adriatic, where a blood orange smear signals morning,
the bream and mackerel boats heading out,
their engines’ putter blessing the hammered silver day.
I follow as she explains how each vertical construction
infers sky—raised cross, soaring bird, any form
that climbs above mid-page will raise the eyes.
The priest-bird overhead, clouds above him,
empty space filling in around his long, slow, glide.
I want to see what the bird sees, to float on wood and taffeta
like the locksmith of Sable,
but I am anchored here—mid-life, mid-page.
In 1678, Besnier, a locksmith from Sable, France created a pair of wood and taffeta wings that he wore on his back and flapped using ropes attached to his hands and feet. He managed to float from windows and roofs, though never actually flew.
MIRIAM O’NEAL’s work has appeared in Ragazine, Marlboro Review, Southern Poetry Journal, Blackbird Journal, and elsewhere.