Arthur tightened the straps on his left leg, and then the other. He’d worn shorts, not wanting to waste a good pair of trousers – ridiculous, now he thought about it – and the leather was cold and unyielding across his shins. It was no easy task to rotate within the frame and slide his arms through the wings without help, but this was the way it needed to be. Old joints didn’t like twisting. A spasm of cramp shot through his elbow before he got both arms in place.
A light breeze was snagging at the canvas already, making it balloon between the struts; the conditions were all but perfect. And now he stood erect: a Human Bird. Arthur took a breath. Felt the morning air shiver through his lungs. Shuffled his feet and coughed, fiddling with the handholds. He hadn’t expected to feel so self-conscious.
At least the hilltop was empty. At his back was a clutch of pines that had been planted to mark the anniversary of Waterloo. Sun-dried cones lay here and there in the meadow grass, out of place amongst field scabious and clover. Before him lay the early-misted lowlands of South Gloucestershire, edged by the ramrod straight track of the Gloucester-Bristol line, the blue-grey snake of the Severn, and the Black Mountains far beyond.
There was a heart-shaped meadow down there somewhere, formed within an oak wood. He’d read about it. Planted by a widower in memory of the wife he loved. A family secret until a hot air balloonist spotted it, sending a photograph to the local rag. Arthur thought how much he’d like to look down on that from the air.
What had he done to mark Ann’s passing? Very little, save to keep her grave weed-free. Even at that, he’d been found wanting. Buying gaudy petrol station carnations on the way up to the cemetery, until Mrs Haverthorn from next door had complained at finding the plot ‘spoiled’ by a spilt vase of cheap flowers. His cheeks had pinked with shame.
The funny thing was, Ann wouldn’t have cared a jot. Would have laughed, even. Still, Arthur had been into town for roses every time since, and taken with them some of that pretty blue campanula she used to grow in the bed by the back door. He knew he could have done more. That fountain she’d always wanted for the garden. Or an apple tree – a sweet Belle de Tours – that would have blossomed for her birthday every Spring. Another soft rag of failure across his shoulders.
He looked along the wing now. Waggled his fingers, feeling foolish. God, they looked old. Grey-blue veins bulging through creped skin, his wedding ring nestled between limp folds like something lost. He thought of Ann’s hands: laced through his own, in a churchyard in Devon; cupped around a baby sparrow that had plunged from its aerial home; cupped around their own baby, when Helen arrived, pink and cross, in the hospital bed in Southmead. Graceful hands, Ann had: she might have been a dancer if she’d been taller. Her hands always put him in mind of that Da Vinci sketch: elegant fingers, pastel soft skin over taut muscles below.
Da Vinci was where this had all started, back when Arthur was a little boy. It had been a big deal, back then, going up to London as a family, to see the small collection which had travelled from a museum in the Italian’s home town. Arthur’s mother was the driving force: she had studied art before she married. His father wouldn’t have come were it not for the ride on the Torbay Express, caught as it stopped off in Bristol en route to Paddington.
His mother had had a guidebook sent through the post in advance. “The human bird shall take his first flight, filling the world with amazement,” read the quote on the first page. And there they were: the whirligig helicopter, the bat-like glider, and that ornithopter that took its inspiration from the flight of birds. Arthur had never seen anything like it.
At the exhibition, young Arthur had pressed his nose to the glass, poring over the spidery words that spoke of Da Vinci’s inspiration from the natural world. “A bird is an instrument working to mathematical law.” Afterwards, he’d been haunted by those scrawled notes and sketches, poring over them in the half-dark of his room, sketching out his own idea. He’d modelled his creation on a jay; the one which used to hop about under the oak tree in his parents’ garden, with its smart camel coat brightened by that famous cerulean flash. He’d loved the jerky, robotic movements of its head as it considered the acorns at its feet, picking one, beak improbably wide to accommodate it. And when the bird flew, at first in a great burst and flurry of wings, and then with soaring grace, he’d admired the fantail of its wings and the flash of white rump as it careered towards the wooded hillside. He’d spent many hours watching from the kitchen window, sketching and planning his maiden flight.
He hadn’t got very far with the build on that occasion – a first wing, which then sat unloved on a shelf at the back of the garage, until he was sixteen and they moved from their cottage on the wooded hill to a two-up, two-down near Bristol. His father had left them, for reasons never explained, and Arthur’s mother, angry and sad, wanted to be nearer her sister in Weston-super-Mare.
Arthur’s eyes were watering now; his vision blurring. It was that wind, he told himself. He wished he could bend his arms to reach his handkerchief, but his elbow wouldn’t thank him for it.
Months, years had gone by before he’d thought of flying again. It’d been a trip to Malmesbury; a visit to an elderly aunt. Arthur had wandered into the town museum, sent to occupy himself while his mother washed up week-old teacups. His eye had been caught at once by an image of a winged man: Eilmer, the Flying Monk, whose study of the flight of birds led him to build his own wings. Five hundred years before Da Vinci puzzled over his ornithopter, Eilmer’s maiden flight from the abbey tower had taken him right over the river, breaking only his legs on the far bank.
Arthur had been inspired. His childhood model had survived the move, but its size rendered it useless for his near-adult frame. He’d dismantled it and rebuilt. Two wings this time; taut bedsheets fanned across the struts instead of the silk that Da Vinci favoured, and the tail that Eilmer had wished for. A real-life ornithopter. Arthur had never tried it out. For a while, the thing hung suspended from his bedroom ceiling, but he kept bumping his head on the wingtips and his mother complained of the dust. So once again it was banished to a garage, left unloved on the back shelves while he left home for an engineering degree in Cardiff.
The breeze was picking up now. Arthur stamped his feet further apart to steady himself. In the distance, he watched a grey heron: long legs stretched ballerina-straight; fast, shallow wing-beats as it traversed the plain. The bird was flying north-west, perhaps to the wetlands at Slimbridge. That was where their daughter Helen used to work, as a warden on the reserve. Helen loved birds like her father – it was something they did together, sitting in the kitchen in Redland, watching goldfinches snatch at Niger seeds from the feeder.
When he had retired from the firm in Bristol, he and Ann had moved back here to be nearer their daughter. She’d been on her way to join them for lunch on the day she had the crash – at her father’s suggestion, she had taken one junction of the motorway for speed. When he thought about that, Arthur sometimes wondered why he kept on breathing. He and Ann had seen the tailbacks on the news while they prepared the roast, but the chicken had been cold and greasy by the time the call came to say that her old Polo had been trapped between two juggernauts, and that she’d died before the ambulance had even arrived on the scene.
There was a woman at the Clinic who always sought him out: Alice Trimbell. They’d been at school together, though she’d been a prefect and a bully and they’d not been friends. Even now, she didn’t seem to notice that he always tried to avoid her eye. It was a mercy – she never missed an opportunity to tell him – that both of his girls had been snatched quickly; mutual friends had aged decades while they nursed loved ones into the ground. It was true that Ann’s cancer had taken them both by surprise with its aggression, making its presence known on a scan one September Monday, and taking her last breath before the month was out. He’d been numb afterwards, for months, and even then he’d barely shed a tear. He’d wanted to feel more, but he had suspicions that his marriage, like the rest of his life, had been a quiet nothing. Between them, Ann and Helen had held his fragile hopes in the palms of their hands, and now they lay prone like a broken-winged sparrow.
A whole year had passed before he left the house for any length of time. Ivy had begun to insinuate itself between the slats on the porch roof, and next door’s cat – recognising that its enemy was weakened – had found dominance over the small birds in the garden. Then one day, he’d surprised himself by walking out of the door. Only to the shop, to buy a newspaper, but it was a start. He hadn’t read one since the day before Helen’s crash. It was only when he’d got home he noticed the image on the cover, although perhaps his subconscious had been onto it sooner: Leonardo Da Vinci – the Life of Birds.
Just seeing the sketches again in the paper’s feature had relit the fire, and he was sketching in the margin before he’d finished reading the piece. Up in the loft, he retrieved the fragments of the model he’d built in his teens. He’d indulged himself over the winter months, using the thermodynamics from his degree and perfecting a scale drawing of what he planned to build. A thick, chesty cough snared his lungs, and some days he questioned whether he had the strength to go on. But the day he’d begun the construction, a jay had visited the garden, and it seemed like a sign.
‘You ok, mate?’
Arthur almost lost his footing. He turned awkwardly, found a man with a Staffie behind him, scratching at the logo on his tracksuit as he stared.
‘Haven’t you heard, mate, we got aeroplanes that’ll do that for you these days?’
The dog was straining at the leash. The man was bent sideways as he grinned at Arthur. One of his front teeth was missing.
‘Thanks, I know.’ Arthur cursed the bloom across his cheeks.
‘Want some company? I’m not in a hurry, even if Vader is.’ He yanked at the lead, and the Staffie whimpered.
‘I’m alright, thanks. Just minding my own business.’
The man shrugged. Behind him, a great buzzard launched itself from a branch in one of the pines, spreading black and tan wingtips to ride the thermals. They both watched it as it soared over their heads.
‘I’ll be off, then, if you’re sure. Stay safe, mate.’
Arthur watched man and dog climb the stile and disappear into the woods. Moments later, the hoarse croak and hectic wingbeats of a pheasant flushed from cover marked their path down the far slope. Then silence fell again, broken only by the breeze and the soft pat and roll of another fir cone.
From his hospital bed, Arthur remembered those last moments. He remembered watching the buzzard against the lifting clouds, taunting him with its effortless flight. He remembered looking out over the fields of the Severn Vale as he started to run. The ground had been rutted and fragile and the slope had dropped away faster than he expected. Even as he’d stumbled and corrected and staggered on, he’d tried to keep his eyes on the white matchsticks of the twin bridges, the lumpen mass of the disused power station at Oldbury, the purple ribbon of distant hills.
And then there’d been a moment, before the fall, when it had really felt like flying. Arms jolted upwards by the air filling his canvas wings. Feet first dragged and then lifted clear of the damp grass. Sweat dampened hair was cooled by the breeze. He’d flown.
Then, darkness. Voices.
‘Bit old for the Flugtag, aren’t you, love? Need a bit more Red Bull next time, would be my advice’.
A sharp pain in his arm, something jabbed in the back of his hand.
‘Almost took the Staffie with him, I heard. Got him by the ankle just as he was taking off. Nasty landing, mind.’
More darkness, more pain, great waves that ebbed and flowed across his skull.
‘Grown man in a pair of shorts always looks a bit strange, if you ask me.’
Louder: ‘Says he’ll come in tomorrow, see how you’re getting on.’
A pause. ‘Can you hear me?’
‘Mr Chisholm’s still out for the count, Terri. This Kev guy said he came back for him. Said he thought he looked weird. All dressed up like Superman or summat. Ended up going back to check on him. Anyhow, if Mr Chisholm wakes up, tell him they couldn’t fit Kev in the ambulance, so he’ll pop round in the morning.’
‘Alright, Mand. Have a good night tonight, love’.
When all was quiet, Arthur opened his eyes: one first, then the other. There was a plaque on the far wall, he could just make it out: ‘presented to Gloucester Royal, 2002’. He’d been here before, too many times. He almost vomited at the memories, or perhaps that was the pain. There was a whole shelf of feelings to choose from, and no doubt he should be choosing shame.
Strange, though. That wasn’t what he was feeling at all.
The plaque sat under a picture – a silly thing, no skill in it, just a chintzy cartoon of a baby bird. Still, it reminded him of that Emily Dickinson poem about hope: “the thing with feathers”. Ann had liked it so much she’d bought it printed on a fridge magnet. And he wondered if there was something perching in his soul that might want to keep on singing after all. All his life he’d wanted it, and today, for a moment – the sweetest, briefest moment – he had been the Human Bird. Inside this broken, twisted old body, not worth a jot to anyone, there was something that could fly.
CHLOE TURNER (@turnerpen2paper) is a writer from Gloucestershire, whose stories have been published in various literary magazines including Kindred (US), Halo, Hark and The Woven Tale Press (US/UK). Her short story ‘Long-gone Mary’ was released by InShort Publishing (Australia) as an individual pocketbook, and ‘Labour of Love’ was a For Books’ Sake Weekend Read in 2016. Chloe blogs about books and writing at www.turnerpen2paper.com. ‘The Human Bird’ was Specially Commended in The Elbow Prize 2016.
Room to Room
It terrified us to know the world
drove past for hours—ratty couch,
shoes in muddy piles, the sepia
dead we loved in frames above
the reading chair—everything
visible from our mailbox, the door
blown open like a hospital gown.
We told ourselves the tumbler
never caught, our hands forgot--
keys, coffee, electric bill, our boys
clamoring for us to change
the batteries in their beeping
games we hated. Through the screen
I peered for the murderer, crouched
in some shadowed corner, imagining
how authorities would later recount
my suffering spelled in splatter
on the ceiling. He fought for his life
they always sigh into the camera, before
the screen floods with the wreckage
of a body in photos mold-flecked
from years in storage, a sheet
draped over the frozen face.
From room to room I crept,
an umbrella clutched like Excalibur
while our puppy trailed, bewildered
and wagging. He ran donuts
as we carried in a trunk-load
of groceries, our great protector
whose stupid tongue panted dusk.
He gnawed a knotted sock to tatters
while we filled pantry shelves
beneath our backyard garden beets,
arranged in rows by month, floating
like butchered organs in their jars.
ADAM TAVEL is the author of The Fawn Abyss (Salmon Poetry, 2017) and Plash & Levitation (University of Alaska Press, 2015), winner of the Permafrost Book Prize in Poetry. You can find him online at adamtavel.com.
Karen’s on her tummy by the edge of the pond, watching Opa feed the koi. They zig and zag under the lily pads in tangles of orange and yellow. The sun’s hot on the back of her neck, and the grass pricks her skin through her bathing suit.
Her Oma sits in a lawn chair, smoking a cigarette, the cubes in her iced tea tinkling when she sips.
‘Tell my fortune, Oma.’
Karen’s palm is dwarfed in the cradle of her grandmother’s wide hand. With the tip of one nail, Oma traces the lifeline, and a tickly feeling runs all the way down Karen’s back.
‘You’ll have a long happy life, with lots of children. And a good man to take care of you.’
It’s what she always says.
‘Will there be horses?’
‘Yes, Schatzi, there’ll be all the horses you could wish for. Now go play while I make lunch.’
Turning cartwheels through the ragged grass, Karen maps her own future. There’ll be a large ranch house with long windows to the floor. She’s already drawn it in an exercise book, one boxy room after another, furnished with pictures cut out of her mother’s magazines – long, low couches, round purple cushions, a glass coffee table. There’ll be four children – two boys and two girls – and a shadowy husband who carries a briefcase and isn’t home much.
Her Oma calls ‘Picnic!’ and Karen runs to the patio to a tuna salad sandwich on a paper plate. The umbrella lays stripes of shadow across the table. A pop as Oma opens a Coke. Karen holds her finger over the neck of the bottle, feeling the straw push up against her finger. Oma shakes out some chips from the big crinkly bag onto her plate. Their crunch against the soft sweetness of the bread is the usual delight in her mouth.
In two years, her father will leave and move to California with a new wife. Her mom will take Karen to live in New Jersey where she’ll work as a secretary in a lawyer’s office. Except for Christmas cards, they’ll mostly lose touch with her father’s parents in Minnesota.
Karen will lose her virginity in 11th grade to a boyfriend who hates to wear condoms, so she’ll sweat bullets every month till her period comes. There’ll be no money for college, so Karen will go work in city government in Newark, first as a typist and later in data entry. She’ll meet a nice man there, Rolf, and they’ll marry, but there’ll be no children, and she’ll come to see there’d never been any need for condoms.
She and Rolf will work hard, saving enough to buy a one-story house on a nice street. There’ll be good times with neighbors, evenings in the yard with beers in the cooler and citronella candles lit, fireflies popping in the trees. Trips to Florida, driving all night, then walking on the beach in St Pete in the setting sun, pelicans skimming just above the waves on their pterodactyl wings. Collecting shells for her mantel at home, the home they’ll lose to foreclosure when Rolf is laid off just exactly as Karen’s mother shows the first signs of Alzheimer’s.
Her mom will fret and pace the confines of their apartment till one day she’ll fall on the cold bathroom tile, the beginning of the end. Then the gun lap, Rolf going first, an aneurysm in the street, then Karen’s own body ossifying limb by limb till she stops even trying to move forward. She’ll spend her last days and nights on the couch, drifting in and out of sleep, watching the birds peck at the empty feeder beyond the living room window till there’s nothing left for her to see.
But on this summer’s afternoon in 1964, there’s just the dandelion-seed air drifted with bees, and her Oma cheering as Opa turns on the sprinkler and Karen runs round and round through the rainbowed spray, laughing like there’s no tomorrow.
FIONA J. MACKINTOSH is a British-American writer living near Washington D.C. who has been widely published in both the US and UK. Her stories have been shortlisted for the 2016 Exeter Story Prize and longlisted for Plymouth University’s 2015 Short Fiction Prize, the 2016 Bristol Short Story Prize, and the 2017 Galley Beggar Short Story Prize, and her flash fictions have won the TSS, Retreat West Monthly, and the Ad Hoc Fiction contests. Fiona is a proud recipient of a 2016 Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist’s Award. You can follow her on Twitter @fionajanemack or on her blog Midatlantic.
We were tight, the three of us. Jackie, Smithy and me. Heads of Cerberus, our old headmaster used to say. Three peas in a pod. We were always in trouble, but it was never anything nasty. We just liked messing around, playing pranks, daring each other to do daft stuff. We’d play knocky nine doors on the way home from school, pelt cars with snowballs in the winter, nick cartons of eggs and decorate the school windows at the weekend.
It was 1998, a school trip out in Weardale, studying the landscape for our Geography exams. The three of us got seats at the back of the bus, but it didn’t last very long. One of the teachers caught Smithy making rude gestures out of the window while me and Jackie egged him on, and we were all made to go and sit at the front.
Once we got there, they gave us some survey forms to fill in.
‘What a load of boring shite,’ Smithy said. ‘I can’t wait to be shot of it all.’ A few months earlier he’d decided he was going to join the army in the summer, which made him even less bothered about school work than normal.
‘Aye,’ Jackie said. ‘I mean, who actually gives a toss about rock formations?’
I dunno whose bright idea it was to let us go out in groups to fill out the survey forms, but they must’ve known we’d skive off. Not that I’m blaming anyone, mind. We were sent out into some woods, and the three of us escaped from the main group.
There was a little river running through the place. We found a bridge over the water, and after Smithy counted down to three we chucked our survey booklets in and watched to see whose went under the bridge fastest. Once they hit the water you couldn’t really tell them apart, but Jackie was sure his had won.
We crossed over and hiked up the side of the river until we came to a part where it narrowed and steepened into a kind of stepped waterfall, with the bank up above. There was a gap of maybe five, six feet across, with a sheer drop down to the water and rocks below.
Jackie stood peering over the edge. Smithy came up behind him, grabbed him by the waist, shoved him forward and then pulled him back. ‘Saved your life,’ he said, but Jackie turned round and tried to nut him.
‘Dickhead,’ he said.
I laughed. I went to the edge and looked at the gap. ‘Reckon you could jump that, Smithy?’
‘Aye. Nee bother.’
‘Go on then.’
‘Why should I?’
Jackie jabbed him in the side. ‘What’s wrong? You chicken?’
Smithy looked over the gap again. ‘If I die,’ he said. ‘I’ll come back and haunt both of you cunts.’ He stepped back.
‘You really doing it?’ I said.
He ignored me. He took another few steps back, burst forwards, and jumped.
Smithy cleared the gap no problem, and then turned round to crow about it. ‘Easy. Your turn now, lads.’
I told him to piss off, but Jackie didn’t say anything. He just went for it, and I watched him go.
He must have lost his footing, because he barely made it halfway. I’ve heard people say in moments like that, time changes, like you’re watching slow motion film. It’s a lie. There was no hanging in the air, like in the cartoons. He just dropped.
Me and Smithy looked at each other across the gap. Shit. We scrambled downstream to where it wasn’t so steep, and then waded back up through the water.
Jackie was splayed out on the rocks like a doll or something. It looked like he was moving, but it was just the water pushing him about. There was blood coming out of his mouth, soaking into the water.
I grabbed hold of Smithy’s shoulder and told him we needed to get help, but he had this stupid blank look on his face. I’d never seen him like that. He wouldn’t say anything, so I told him to stay with Jackie, make sure he was okay while I went to get help.
We didn’t have phones on us back then, so all I could do was charge through the woods, screaming.
It took a while to find anyone. When I got back to the rocks, Smithy was sitting in the water next to Jackie. He was soaked through and shivering, red marks all over his clothes. Jackie’s eyes were still open. I remember that.
They told us later that Jackie died instantly, whacking his head off the rocks. Some people found that comforting, but I thought it was more weird, in a way. There wasn’t any pain, or last words. He was just there, and then he wasn’t. Gone.
If it happened these days, you’d probably get counselling, some specky-eyed therapist talking to you about your feelings. But we just got on with it. There was a memorial service, but I didn’t go. I hate it when people cry, and I could just imagine Jackie’s mam there, bawling her eyes out.
We were tight, the three of us. But without Jackie things were different, and it was only a few months until our exams. I messed mine up, but it was just enough to get into sixth form. Last I heard of Smithy, he was stationed in Africa somewhere.
I think about Jackie sometimes. What he’d be doing now. And I try to remember that feeling we all had, that freedom. Back then, we thought we were invincible. We all did. But we were wrong.
on full moons
when you are awake at 2 am with
the bed to yourself
and you scroll through all the girls your werewolf follows on instagram
see the kind of girl he likes
the girls he hunts
and you look
and you study
and you measure the long hair tumbling from scalp to shoulder
the arched back
the thick lips parted in surprise
the eyes fixed on some point of focus on the ground
calculating the dimensions of each figure
the degrees of symmetry in each face
and you look at your own face in the mirror
and you study your own body in the camera of your phone
and you measure your own body from various angles
learning its angles for the first
for the hundredth time
and you touch your body
and you are aroused by the self-harm of sexuality
by the scrupulous dissection of flaws
by the compulsive consumption of flesh and you
swell despite the
knowledge that you will
you felt as a virgin in high school imagining yourself straddle some boy's lap and you
because you are so beautiful
so sad and
the kind of girl your werewolf likes
the girl he haunts
when you are awake at 2 am with
the bed to yourself
how i feel when i'm alone in your apartment
the cobwebs & clutter & bits of stale chips on the
floor set a-glow in my eyes & suddenly
the grit of you is vivid in my mind: remembering
the frowning hunch of your
back against the tub, red pimples
branding your skin & the tip
of your soft penis
an absurd buoy in an epsom salt bath
these things i let myself love because they are residue
left from the mean means this life employs to
pluck you from your place in the clouds,
rend your cool-dude shrouds,
pull you by the tufts of your lightly thinning hair
into the grime of hard work, the grave
exhaustion that follows, the same grime that
housed me as a child &
waits for me
with the outstretched arms of a ghost
this portion of my love for you flows heavy like
how i feel when you are ashamed of me at improv shows
1) a common barn hen, her
breast crudely plump, her clucks
rude & loud, her neck ripe
2) the wringing of a word that rings
through the rest of the evening
as we tumble from drink to drink &
stumble from scene to scene until we
return home on the range, until you
screw my head back on my neck, until
at last i can feel loved again & forgiven
3) the way i grew ugly in front of you
& all the teeth that spilled
out of my squawking mouth
ARIEL CLARK-SEMYCK is a recent graduate from University of Notre Dame. She lives in Chicago where she serves as a part-time henchwoman for various places of business. Her poems have previously been published in Re:Visions.
Sometimes I’m afraid that I may have a child out there I don’t know about. With some of the goings-on in my past, it is certainly possible. I once heard a story about the philosopher José Vasconcelos. He was said to have been such a notorious womanizer in his younger days that when a dying pregnant woman wandered into a hospital one day and was asked to name the father before expiring, all she had to say was ‘José’ for the authorities to know it was Vasconcelos’ child.
These days, I meet with my colleagues from the University of Chihuahua at a little coffee shop that has pink chrome and Formica tables, an old-fashioned stainless steel coffee marker and dirty picture windows facing a quiet street of shops and markets. There are rows of pastries in a glass case, and jars filled with liquidos: clear lemonade and pineapple-mango and melon juice. As I listen to my fellow instructors rattle on about post-Marxism and Derrida and neo-pragmatism, I think about the little town where I was born. We would catch fishes in a dirty stream that came down from the high mountains, the sierras. The fish were small, and pale blue, more bones than flesh. All they were good for was soup. The old men grazed their cattle in the fields during the winter. And in the fall, the butterflies, the butterflies… gold and red and silver butterflies from the United States, headed south, to the tropics, the deep, unguarded forests.
My colleagues like lots of milk and sugar in their coffees. I take mine black. And we eat sweet bread and biscuits, big cookies, corn muffins, and doughnuts.
Our server approaches the table. She asks us if there is anything else we need. My colleagues and I politely refuse her offer of more coffee. She has short hair and large, dark eyes. And she looks familiar. I wonder if I have seen her at the university. I ask her if she is a student and she says no.
There’s supposed to be music tonight, but the musicians haven’t shown up. The café is remarkably dead for a Friday night. We are planning to go to a peña later in the evening that a student holds on weekends in the upper floors of his parents’ house. The kids who put on the peña are all Marxists and philosophy students. The guy whose house they use is a former student of mine. His parents are pretty well-to-do, and own a couple of upscale nightclubs that have been the venues for a series of sensational murders. A folk band led by a flutist that we all know simply as “the flute guy” is supposed to be playing at the peña, and a group of independent filmmakers from the university will be showing their work.
I ask my colleague, Juan Fieles, what he thinks of the filmmakers, who call themselves Collectiva 17.
‘Take away their cameras, and they’re just a bunch of masturbating little monkeys,’ he says to me. Juan is kind of an arrogant prick. His students hate him.
We leave the café at nine o’clock. Driving through the darkened streets, sitting in the back of Juan Fieles’ car, I look at the closed shops with their metal shutters down. Old buildings, mostly brick and plastered adobe, pseudo-colonial style, built in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The occasional Modernist Movement structure from the fifties or sixties, glass panels and whitewash stained with orange and black iron oxide streaks. No lights, even on the upper floors, except at PAN headquarters, where there seems to be a party going on. Other than that, only the occasional bar or gas station shows any signs of life. And that guy in a straw hat standing under a streetlamp eating a huge slice of watermelon and singing to himself.
There’s a popular song about a guy who cheats on his girlfriend because he’s so in love with her that he’s afraid she’ll break his heart. That’s male reasoning for you.
I teach future teachers. At least I hope that one day they’ll be teachers. And I have a strong suspicion that most of us university professors are actually arrogant pricks.
We end up in an old residential neighborhood, colonia something or other. The two-story houses were built before the revolution, red brick and local stone, with the occasional Victorian or Art Nouveau flourish. Tall Chinese elms and black cypresses out in front. Juan parks his car on the street, blocking a circular driveway.
The room is dark, and people are sitting on ragged sofas or beanbag chairs. No one seems to be watching the movie that’s being projected on a yellowed sheet tacked to a wall. It is an ugly, out-of-focus, black and white collection of clips of a topless dancer, interspersed with documentary footage, perhaps from World War II. (Sure enough, Stalin appears on the screen, speaking bombastically and waving his arms like a maniac.) I turn my eyes from the flickering grey-wash and notice that our waitress from the café is sitting on one of the sofas, talking to a bearded fellow. She’s wearing a copper-colored shirt that sparkles in the dim, reflected light of the film.
I take a seat across from her on a little table. She smiles at me and asks, ‘Weren’t you in La Tacuba earlier?’
I nod yes, and ask her, ‘Are you sure we haven’t met before tonight?’
‘No,’ she says. ‘I don’t believe we have.’
She seems so familiar as she casually pats me on the shoulder and offers to fetch me a coffee or glass of wine. I give her an avuncular smile. And the name Isabel comes to me, not an image of a person, just the name, out of nowhere, out of a past as foggy and distant as the butterflies and fishes in the little village where I was born.
CHARLES HADDOX lives in El Paso, Texas, on the U.S.-Mexico border, and has family roots in both countries. His work has appeared in over forty journals including The Sand Hill Review, Perspectiva Popular, Corium Magazine, and The Summerset Review.
I was driving up a hill when I saw the back of a head coming towards me. As I got closer it was confirmed, the striped beanie and wind-breaker flapped back of a jacket. The person was walking backwards down the hill. Lifting their feet in a marching motion, like they were winding themselves in reverse, going back in time. As I passed, I caught his face. He was a very old man. I saw a slight smile. Or I wanted to see a sign of contentment, for fear I’d have to intervene otherwise. Yesterday the sidewalks were glazed in a half inch of ice. Schools within the tri-county area were closed.
Generally, I leave people alone. You should be allowed free will even when your behavior defies custom.
The previous spring I drove by a woman, face down on a lawn, a toddler running in circles around her body. I pulled over a few houses past, once I’d debated in my head and decided she might be a corpse, or near it. I approached and called, ‘Excuse me? Are you okay?’ She lifted her face from the grass and informed me that I had interrupted her enjoyment of the sun beating her back. The toddler skipped over her calves, and the woman resumed drowning position.
I did not stop the man walking backwards down the hill. He was headed where he wanted to go. He took careful steps. I drove on to the library. I chose to park furthest from the building in an empty lot.
SHANNON MCLEOD is the author of the essay chapbook PATHETIC (Etchings Press). Her writing has appeared in Necessary Fiction, Hobart, The Billfold, Cheap Pop, and Word Riot, among other publications. She teaches high school English in Southeast Michigan. You can find Shannon on twitter @OcqueocSAM or on her website at shannon-mcleod.com.
The house is in darkness; there is no traffic on the street. Callum tiptoes up the stairs. His stomach feels sore from crawling in through the toilet window. He opens a door leading off the landing. It must be Aiden’s bedroom, with the poster of Manchester United stuck above the bed and clothes chucked all over the floor. There’s a laptop on his glass desk, and an iPhone next to it, still in the box, like a brick of gold. Callum hesitates, then puts it in his bag. Aiden gets picked up from school every day by a man in a Mercedes. His dad, probably. Callum hasn’t seen his own dad for a couple of years now. He thinks about the gold ring on his little finger; his dad whacked him across the face once and the ring drew blood.
Callum crawls under the bed, looking for weed or a stash of money, but there’s nothing except a load of shit. Old socks, mugs with mould in them. Once he’s under the bed, he collapses. Lying on his stomach on the carpet feels good; the thick wool cushions his body. He rests his cheek on his arm; he could drift off under here, protected in the dark. Tommy is downstairs pulling out drawers, smashing plates. Callum gave him the tip off – Callum sits next to Aiden in English and Aiden told him he was going out with his parents to a posh steak house in town that night. Callum has never been taken to a posh steak house. His mum works nights, so he eats takeaway chicken most evenings. When Aiden’s mum calls it’s all I’ve made you a lovely dinner, darling. He’s learnt a lot from listening to their phone calls, like the code for the alarm…
The restaurant is in the basement. Lit by candles. There’s no one in it except the three of them, sitting by the window. Aiden is jigging his knee against the table leg.
‘What do you want to drink, Aiden? Some of our wine?’ says his dad.
‘Yes please, Aiden,’ says his mum. Her forehead is stiff with bunched-up lines, ‘stress lines’ she calls them. She reaches her hand onto his knee. He stops moving it.
‘Yes please.’ Aiden takes off his puffa jacket.
His dad pours him a tiny amount of red wine, his lips pressed together. He looks even more pissed off than usual. ‘What do you both want to eat? The sirloin steak is good.’
Aiden can’t remember the last time they went out together. He usually avoids his dad. Hides upstairs in his room all evening, so he doesn’t have to listen to him moaning about the news or telling his mum off about the food.
‘I’m not really hungry,’ says his mum.
‘For God’s sake, we’re having a meal in a restaurant. Play the game.’
‘I’ll have the plaice then. But no capers with it.’
‘I’ll have rump steak, medium rare.’
‘Okay. Now where’s the waitress?’ His dad stands up, almost knocking his chair over. Aiden slumps over the table, his hands pushing his cheeks up. ‘Mum, I haven’t done my maths homework, or my history.’
‘We need to talk to you about something.’
Aiden looks up at her. Her lip is quivering. She can’t control it. His dad comes back and sits down heavily.
‘Tell him what’s going on, Dave,’ says his mum.
His dad stares at his wineglass, looks at Aiden, and looks away again. ‘We’re getting divorced. You don’t need to worry, nothing much is going to change. I’m going to move into a flat round the corner. We both love you. You know that, don’t you?’ He rubs Aiden’s shoulder. Aiden almost shudders in revulsion at his touch.
His mum sobs, her mascara running. Aiden wants to give her a hug, but he pushes the plate of bread and olive oil away from him, spilling his dad’s wine.
‘Fuck off, Dad.’ he says. He grabs his jacket and stumbles up the stairs and out into the street, where his bus is just about to pull out. The driver lets him on. The top deck is full of girls screeching about their phones. His dad is probably having an affair, that’s got to be the case. He’s the boss so it would be easy for him. Aiden pulls his hoody over his face so no one can see him crying.
Callum is nearly asleep. The carpet has sucked the desire to ransack the room out of him, made him dream about Kayleigh, a girl he likes. She’s got red hair and the bluest eyes he’s ever seen.
‘Callum, what the fuck are you doing up there? Have you found the gold?’ Tommy’s voice sounds like he is miles away. Gold is not something Aiden’s mum would wear. She looks more like a diamond earrings type, from what he’s seen of her at school football matches.
‘Callum. Where the fuck are you?’ Tommy shouts this time. Maybe he will get bored of waiting for him and leave, but no, he’s pounding up the stairs. ‘You little shit.’
Callum says nothing. This is the first time he’s gone with Tommy on a ‘job’. They’ll split the money down the middle, Tommy said, as Callum supplied the info. Tommy is a kind of cousin, three years older, handy with his fists. Callum can hear him in one of the other bedrooms pulling it to pieces. It’s the quickest way; fuck being quiet, he says. Now there’s silence. Callum tenses up, pulls his leg in further under the bed, but it’s too late.
‘I can see you under there. Get out. You need to help me find the safe.’
Callum mumbles something into the carpet.
Tommy’s hand is round his ankle, fingers digging into his flesh. He pulls him out roughly and the pain makes Callum scream. ‘I said get the fuck out of there.’
Callum stands up. Something pops in his head. He runs at Tommy, swings for him, but Tommy dodges out of the way and he hardly makes contact.
‘The fuck you doing? We’re supposed to be rinsing this house, not fighting like ten year olds.’
‘Don’t fucking grab me then.’
‘You’re lying under the bed, and you won’t come out… you know I’m in charge.’
‘Yeah, and I’m sick of it.’ Callum punches Tommy on the arm; his knuckles crack into flesh as hard as a piece of wood.
Tommy laughs. ‘It’ll take more than that to make a mark on me.’
‘Oh, fuck off.’
‘I’m warning you, boy, I’m going to give you such a kick in–’
There is a crash, the sound of glass breaking, coming from downstairs.
‘Shit, who the fuck is that? You said they’d be out all evening.’
Callum feels sick.
‘Let’s climb out the window.’ Tommy slams into the desk in his haste, banging it against the wall, cracking the glass. He opens the window and backs out. ‘It’s okay, there’s a drainpipe.’
Callum follows him, his arms aching as he struggles to hold on. He jumps the last six feet to the ground, landing awkwardly on his left side. They sprint down the garden. Callum’s ankle hurts, but he runs through the pain, focusing on reaching the fence at the bottom of the garden. He’s left the bag with the iPhone in it on the floor of Aiden’s bedroom. Tommy is empty handed too. What a joke.
Aiden can’t get his key in the lock. His hand is shaking. He tries the key again. It slides in this time. He runs his hand over the wall until he finds the light switch. The alarm doesn’t come on, which is strange. There’s a bitter smell in the hall, overlaid with something flowery like deodorant.
He grabs a cricket bat from the cupboard under the stairs. It doesn’t take much force to smash his dad’s painting with it, the one that cost thousands of pounds. The sound of the glass breaking makes him want to do more. He shoves a plant onto the floor. The soil looks shocking on the white carpet. He walks into the living room; it’s a mess in there, all the books have been pulled off the shelves and the flat screen TV is lying on the sofa. Now he’s confused. Is there someone in the house? At that moment there’s a loud bang from upstairs.
He walks up the stairs, the cricket bat giving him courage. The window in his bedroom is wide open; he rushes up to it. Two lads are sprinting down the garden, heading for the fence. They both have shaved heads and there’s something about the way they are running, so fast and determined that makes him wish he was with them, a part of their world, running away from this house that feels broken and cold.
RACHEL WILD is a published writer living in East London. Her first love is short fiction, but she is currently working on a novel. She is also an editor of The Forge Literary Magazine, which publishes short fiction and non-fiction by new and established writers.
MODALITIES OF THE BROKEN
Patti Smith fucked up A Hard Rain in Stockholm.
Then, she wrote about fucking it up
for The New Yorker.
We should all be so lucky.
I bounce a check.
You electrocute the rabbit.
The marinara gets burned.
So you sit down on the back porch with a yellow legal pad
and pen a rumination about the beauty of mistakes,
about the vulnerability of a moment
and how it can drive you to smash up the Caddy,
about how life’s majesties
are in the modalities of the broken.
Then you send it off to The New York Times and 100,000 people read it and think,
Oh, what a maverick, what a visionary.
When Bob Dylan sang A Hard Rain at The Town Hall in 1963
he didn’t miss a g chord,
didn’t forget one 100 drummers,
or men with their bloody hammers.
He got it all.
Didn’t fuck up one line.
Patti Smith has a blue-eyed son.
I have a blue-eyed daughter.
The microphones all across the world
are blue eyes of sound.
So, Patti, we love you,
but when you stand up in front of the world
to sing A Hard Rain
and fuck it up,
just fuck it up
and be done with it
because the rain never fucks up.
It fucks us up
because it is
MATTHEW LIPPMAN is the author of 4 poetry collections – The New Year of Yellow, American Chew, Salami Jew, and Monkey Bars. He lives in Boston and teaches high school English and Creative Writing.
Wooded, windswept, / this storm-scoured coast. / April wind whips away wet bark / into the windrow of bleached driftwood at the high tide line. / From a bony nest, / the wolf emerges / combs the beach for barnacles, dead salmon, / nudges her muzzle in eelgrass, / then plods across tide pools / and gravel bar. / Alpha female, white with age, / eyes amber, / fur matted & tangled from saltwater & wind, / she traces the tidal coast- / line with worn paws, / swims out to a cluster of seal-draped rocks, / pounces on a basking pinniped, / & gorges on warm viscera / until her muzzle is scarlet / with blood. / She carries the entrails to the forest’s foggy edge, / weaves between towering Sitka spruce & cedar, / past fracking fields & oil specters, / until she reaches a mossy cave, / mouth dark, agape like a blue whale / welcoming a swarm / of krill into its belly.
SARAH ESCUE is a poet, visual artist, and editor in Boulder, Colorado. Her poems and artwork appear or are forthcoming in Gulf Stream, Dialogist, After the Pause, DIAGRAM, Tooth n Nail, So To Speak, Hermeneutic Chaos Journal, among others. Her first chapbook Bruised Gospel is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press in 2017. You can visit her website at sarahescue.com.
“THE IMPERIAL GLOBAL RAINBOW” -Empire, xiii
out of here and now amorphic i am either unwillingly or foolishly cavorting to a love song : The Finding, The Reclaimed, The Refusal none of which i hear altho the bodies have been said to glitter, the gender mothers strummed the finale into several chronicles stained scrolls also glisten and divine a rapture wrapping arms through the holes of the anxious, the kinky declawed and unskinned, their blushes boiling a hegemony i cannot pronounce until i can, my voice evidence -- descendant of a climbing trilogy, a mediated change in steps which favor the living, the body, the owning, the holding, a meditation strung from ashes how i cannot know what we've shared i cannot know what i am
JACQ is a queer, mixed-Latinx poet from California. Their work has appeared or is forthcoming in Columbia Poetry Review, Berkeley Poetry Review, The Fem Literary Magazine, Yes Poetry, and Apogee. Their first full-length book of poems is forthcoming in 2017. Jacq can be found on Twitter @jacqlast.
They were a mismatched pair and she knew it. The single rose limping over the edge of the chipped terracotta pot was just one more bit of evidence.
He was a bursting smile and a firm handshake. She was a shadow that slipped past the bright people at a party. She disliked most of them. What was there to like, really? No one said what they meant at those things. It was exhausting to try to figure out the subtext. You look great tonight = you really can’t pull that off and shouldn’t even try.
Except him, she whispered to the empty room. There had never been undertones with him. Where was that potting soil he bought last summer? Dirt doesn’t expire, does it?
Maybe in the hall closet under the dry cleaning. Most of it was his. Colors and patterns swathed in ocean-killing plastic, abandoned, still hanging next to her darks and solids. She preferred gray. City camouflage.
The petals were starting to sag. She knew soil wouldn’t help. The stem was rootless. There was no way it could dig in and fight for everything it needed to survive.
But stranger things have happened. When he got down on one knee in the middle of the mall with a $99 ring bought on credit, that had been odd. When he sat on the floor next to the hospital bed holding her hand all night, that had been unexpected. The day-old rose he brought her every Saturday from the corner deli had been mystifying.
Why don’t you grow a garden on the balcony, he’d ask. Every time. Start with this rose. I’d love to look up at our window when I’m walking home and see roses.
It was a stupid request and a stupid idea. She told him so. Who had the time to grow roses?
And so, yes, she didn’t deserve him. Maybe he’d finally realized that. He was worn down by her inability to kiss him in public. That she avoided his mother and didn’t like dogs. That she saw the negative in every silver lining he tried to shine into her dark little version of a day.
What was the goal? To see the smile fade from his eyes and hear that annoyingly persistent cheer finally leave his voice? Now that the room was empty, triumph seemed like a pretty shitty reward.
A bit of grace. Wasn’t that all he’d asked for? It didn’t seem like much now, looking back. Maybe she should have told him the truth. It all seemed to come easy to him, but she just wasn’t sure how to start.
April can be such a miserable month when the city doesn’t want to let go of winter. She opened the window to the chill anyway, balancing the pot and single bud in the center.
Search: container roses. Category: Flowers, Plants and Seeds. He has to come back and get that dry cleaning some time. When he does, he’ll see roses.
KIMBERLY PAULK is a writer in Matthews, North Carolina. Her work has appeared in Ground Fresh Thursday Press and Charlotte Parent magazine.
When Deepu arrives at our kholi, his face is swollen and, through his torn shirt, I see bloody scratches on his body. That downturned gaze tells me he has done wrong. I see my son’s defiance rising like a shield that the world will smash as it has mine, and a liquid sourness burns my throat. I can barely pay heed to the Pandu constable accompanying him as I nod, yes, I am the father.
It is a breezy evening out, but the air within is humid, close, stale. After another long day hauling shoe boxes at the factory, I’m on my way to Nathu’s. I had not been expecting Deepu. Each time he storms out, he stays away longer. Who knows where he goes or sleeps. He comes back, eventually, like a dog with rabid eyes and loping strides. This police escort is a first. Still, they’ve let him come here instead of ordering me to the station, so it can’t be serious.
Pandu starts talking, fat face bobbing from side to side, stick swinging about. His khaki pants are fastened tight below a pot-like belly and his shirt is missing a button. Deepu had ‘aggressively touched’ a college girl at Andheri station. The girl and her friend had dragged Deepu to the police station. His saaheb had wanted to lock the boy up after a good beating. But he had intervened out of pity.
He whacks Deepu’s calves with the stick. ‘Same age as my son,’ he says, raising his nasal tones like he’s giving a speech to the four-five people now gathered outside.
When Pandu stops spraying his gutka spit, I look again at Deepu, who has edged into the corner shadows – away from us and the mock-filled eyes outside. A buzzing insect has settled on the cut lip, where the blood is still not dry. I want him to deny the accusation, hit the man back, swat the insect away, do or say something, anything, that I can then put a stop to. He remains rocklike.
The man starts on me next. Tells me I need to teach the boy to stay within our kind, make him understand that touching girls like that is a crime, find him an honest job. He wrinkles his nose as if his shit doesn’t smell like ours because he wears a uniform. When he slaps Deepu’s back on his way out, I feel the sting on mine. His unsaid parting thought echoes in my ears: ‘You can wash coal as much as you like; it will never turn white.’
Once Pandu has turned the corner, I tell the gawping motherfuckers to get lost if they don’t want their teeth handed to them. They mutter and laugh till I give one a push, sending him sprawling and the rest scattering.
I grab Deepu’s neck and throw him down. My kicks land on his shoulders – he knows to turn his face away. He crouches, bracing for more. Finally, I lean against the doorway and slide down, taking in a gasp of cool air. Slowly, he moves over to squat at the other end. For all the world, we might just be a father and son sitting in easy companionship.
A little girl stands a few feet off, fidgeting with the buttonless man’s shirt she’s wearing. Thick smoke and food odors drift from nearby kholis, filling our nostrils, making our stomachs rumble and our eyes water. All around, there is the usual yelling, crying, and cursing.
Seeing how he’s shifting uneasily every few moments, I say, quieter than I want to: ‘Next time, don’t come here. Let them lock you up, beat you up. What did you think, touching that girl? That she would go with you?’
He stares ahead and it angers me more that his small ears, hooked nose, and jutting chin are so like mine.
Curse his slut mother for leaving when he was only two days old. In those early, rough days in the city, she wept every night while I struggled to find ways to make money. All these years, I, alone, have carried him, the weight of his bones bearing down on me.
One time, I thought I’d lost him forever. During the 2008 blasts, I had been loading newspaper trucks. When they shut the city down, I dropped everything and ran for him. Couldn’t find him for days. People said he was gone. A fist of pain had squeezed my chest day and night as I had roamed curfewed streets. On the sixth day, he had shown up as if nothing had happened.
After that, I never look for him when he disappears. That fist inside me has hardened to stone.
I get up. ‘Go to Ramiya’s if you want it so bad.’
At last, he speaks: ‘Pay for it like you, you pathetic fucker?’
He may resemble me, yet how is he my blood? I kick him again. He loses balance and topples over, rolling up into a ball again. I step away, shaking my head.
A scream spins me around. He’s swaying in front of the doorway, knees buckling, hands clutching his head. That unnatural sound from his wide-open mouth makes my insides ache.
The girl, watching all the while, bursts into tears and runs off.
I turn and walk away faster.
Nathu and I arrive at Ramiya’s after midnight and six bottles of feni. She’s sitting on the floor with a girl pressing her feet. She looks us over and says, ‘You’ve had your drink. I suppose you’re hungry now.’
Behind her, past the flimsy curtain, we glimpse humping backs and bare limbs. Some regulars pay just for the live shows. For most others, privacy is an unaffordable extra.
Nathu drops beside her, takes her hand, kisses it. ‘Ramiya,’ he slobbers, ‘You know my heart and life are yours. I cannot even look at another.’
She slaps his face away, laughing, ‘Ja, you filthy cur. You just want a free ride.’
I pay for both of us. She calls out a couple of girls. Ramiya keeps a clean house. I’ve been coming many years and never had cause to complain. But it seems the girls keep getting younger. Or I’m getting older. No matter. A man has an itch, he needs to scratch it. No need to go grabbing what is not on sale or freely offered – that boy deserved what came to him.
Ramiya points to the scrawny one and says to me, ‘She’s new – from faraway Vittalnagar. Thought an experienced man like you best to break her in.’
I know what that means. We go to the only room with a door. No one is allowed here other than girls who need to rest. New ones like her often do, especially when I’m done with them. More so if they try to fight. This one doesn’t – crumpling into a bloody, naked heap in minutes. ‘Look at me, Vittalnagar,’ I pull her head up by her hair. No facial marks, which is a relief as that makes Ramiya mad.
Back at the kholi, there is no sign of Deepu. A smoggy grey dawn is trying to smother the pitch-dark night. I lie down to get some rest. But that old stone-fist begins grinding heavily inside me, its jagged edges ripping me apart.
Then I know I am being watched.
‘Deepu?’ I whisper.
He breathes out and a half-sob escapes. I close my eyes to his pain, dripping like hot wax from a burning candle. A few minutes pass and I am drawn into that familiar, welcome heaviness before sleep descends. When a cold weight tightens around my throat, I gasp for air. But I am already drowning in my son’s tears as they rain down on me.
JENNY BHATT's Pushcart-nominated writing has appeared or is upcoming in, among others: Amazon’s Day One Literary Journal, Gravel Magazine, Lunch Ticket, Eleven Eleven Journal, The Indian Quarterly, York Literary Review, NonBinary Review, Femina India, The Ladies Finger, LitBreak, and an anthology, ‘Sulekha Select: The Indian Experience in a Connected World‘. Having lived and worked her way around India, England, Germany, Scotland, and various parts of the US, she now splits her time between Atlanta, Georgia in the US and Ahmedabad, Gujarat in India. She is currently working on her first short story collection. Find her at indiatopia.com.
somewhere in Flanders/Afghanistan
in Flanders Fields some shit
flowers, crosses the dead etc. etc.
but the dead do not speak john.
sometimes they leave letters;
sometimes they leave a room full
of porn and candy wrappers
that someone else has to clean.
carthago delenda est, so on so forth.
you served our country, whatever
but I'm tired of hearing you go on
about birds and sunsets and torches
and god knows what else.
I'd rather meet your hundred year old
ghost on remembrance day.
when everyone's drinking to forget
the shit we volunteered to do
in a country that was not our own.
I'll buy you a beer though I don't really
drink much since my wife left,
don't sleep much either.
nobody sleeps well after
it would have been easier
to die in afghanistan
under cover of flames
smoke the colour of sand,
now you envy
For the entire
a handful of seeds
every few steps
and the crows
as a blessing,
BENJAMIN HERTWIG's first book of poems, Slow War, is coming out in 2017. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming on NPR, in The New York Times, Word Riot, THIS, Pleiades, and the Literary Review of Canada. He won the 2015 Prairie Fire Non-Fiction Award and the 2015 Glass Buffalo Poetry Prize.
Father Keegan glanced at his watch and saw that the hour was drawing to a close. He’d had only four visitors, heard no graver a sin than that from gravel-voiced Gerti, who’d again pinched a few euros from Sunday’s collection plate and was sent away burdened less by Hail Marys than a plea for greater self-control.
Still, he reflected, four wasn’t a bad tally. Long gone were the days when parishioners flocked to this musty booth like children to Santa’s grotto. He knew that many, even among the faithful, viewed the concept as a creaky anachronism, and in recent years, despite its rebranding as Reconciliation, the Sacrament Formerly Known as Confession had slipped from a weekly offering to monthly.
But just as he was about to wrap things up and head off to pay a visit to St Jude’s Hospice, he heard the approaching squeak of leather soles.
They stopped on the stone floor outside. He wondered if it might be a tourist come to observe an institution that some smug guidebook insisted was on its last legs. There was that bearded, beady-eyed Austrian who’d looked in recently and hurled a few insulting statistics before asking if it was true that the Church in Ireland was dying out?
‘Rumours of our demise,’ Father Keegan had responded, ‘are greatly exaggerated.’
Afterwards, he’d wondered whether the word greatly was really justified.
Suddenly the booth door opened. A man entered and sank to his knees on the other side of the honeycomb lattice and dangling crucifix.
The voice was calm, cultivated. A tang of aftershave wafted through the partition.
Father Keegan asked the man how long it had been since his last confession, wondering whether he’d be one of those regular, old-school penitents who approached the sacrament with the grim enthusiasm of a self-flagellant, or rather the sort who shuffled in as if on a trip to the dentist.
‘A long time, Father, in all honesty.’
‘Then you’re all the more welcome. Is it something particular that brought you?’
He tried to sound reassuring, not wanting anyone to experience the fear he used to have when jelly-jowled Father Delaney, his parish priest back in Donegal, would growl, Tell me your sins, child, with a peculiar mix of threat and relish. Father Keegan – or Stephen, as he was known back then, always hating the rhyme of his name – would rattle off rehearsed banalities about fighting with his siblings, using curse words, or laughing when his classmates mocked the disabled Clancy boy, and emerge from confession feeling no more cleansed than when he’d gone in.
On the other side of the lattice was silence. The man was no regular, that much seemed clear. Probably one of the flock gone astray, someone who hadn’t seen the inside of a church in years, and now, following a tawdry fling or fallout over money, felt a sheepish obligation to return.
‘Do you have something you wish to confess?’ he tried again.
‘Yes, Father.’ The stranger cleared his throat. ‘I do.’
‘Then speak. Don’t be afraid. I’m not here to judge you.’
Another pause. Then, in the darkness:
‘I killed someone, Father.’
Father Keegan shifted on his seat. His first thought – sacrilege almost, but he couldn’t help it – was that the man was pulling his leg. There was that little gurrier a few weeks ago who claimed he’d molested a younger sibling. When Father Keegan tried to make him aware of the gravity of the act, the boy feigned indignation and said he expected more understanding, What with you being a priest and everything. Aren’t you all kiddy fiddlers? Father Keegan had bitten his lip as the prankster fled, guffaws rolling up the aisle as he and some other yob ran off before he could grab them. Such were the risks of the job nowadays. When he’d entered the ranks in 1999 the floodgates had already opened. He wasn’t naive about these things.
‘You killed someone?’ he asked warily after several long seconds had elapsed.
‘That’s right, Father.’
‘When did this happen?’
He braced himself. If this was a joke, now was the moment the punchline might come.
‘Nearly two years ago, Father.’
Something in the words, quiet and deadly earnest, chilled him.
‘Would you like to tell me about it?’ In case the man misunderstood, thought he was digging for gore, he clarified: ‘Was it an accident?’
‘No, Father. Or not exactly.’
‘It was a grown woman, Father.’
The statement fell like a challenge between them.
‘Someone you knew?’
‘Well… we were intimate, if you know what I mean.’ Pause. ‘She wasn’t well, Father. Wasn’t well at all. She used to hurt herself. And she’d want me to hurt her, too. When we were… you know. Only one time I went too far. In a way I was… was just doing what she wanted. But then she said stop and… I wasn’t able to.’ Pause. ‘You won’t tell on me, Father? This is just between us, right?’
A fear flashed through Father Keegan’s mind: Was this some undercover guard or journalist planting a sting? Would he go online tonight and find his name emblazoned in the papers? Dublin Priest Spites Law by Upholding Confessional Seal. He and his colleagues had spoken about it; it was a fear they all shared. Like he’d told Father Buckley recently: As a man, he had his doubts about the Church’s stance. As a priest, he felt bound by it.
‘What you say here,’ he began, choosing his words with great care, ‘is between you and God. What matters is that you speak sincerely.’ He stopped to let that sink in. ‘Is everything you’re telling me the truth?’
‘It is, Father. I swear.’
‘And do you feel remorse for what you did?’
‘I do. Of course. Or I wouldn’t be here. I have a wife. Kids. I can hardly look them in the eye, my own children, knowing what I did.’
‘Does anyone else know?’
‘Not a soul.’
Every word the man spoke sounded genuine. Father Keegan felt the lead burden of responsibility weigh upon him. Perhaps this really was a plea for help. If so, it couldn’t be ignored, no matter how heinous the circumstances.
‘Sometimes I’m afraid it could happen again,’ the man said.
‘But you’re not… you’re not planning on repeating it?’
‘No. I mean, I don’t want to. Only I… I met someone else. She reminds me so much of… They both hurt themselves. And want pain during… you know.’
Strange, how he wouldn’t even utter the word. As if sex, and not killing, were the true monstrosity.
‘It’s like a temptation,’ the man went on. ‘It’s why I had to come here.’
‘You’ve met this woman?’ Father Keegan asked.
‘No. Well, only on the internet. She’s in England. She wants to fly over and meet me.’
‘And does she know anything about…?’
‘Of course not. No one does. Only you.’
He had a sudden desire to snatch a glimpse of the man’s face. But as soon as his gaze drifted towards the lattice it caught the contours of the crucifix. He shut his eyes, sought the strength and wisdom to do the right thing.
‘It took courage for you to come here today,’ he said. ‘God knows that. But as long as you carry this secret inside you–’
‘I’m not turning myself in. No way.’ For the first time a defiant edge entered the man’s voice. ‘I have a family. A business. People who count on me.’
Father Keegan took a deep breath. The note of desperation in the voice cowed him. No training could prepare him for this. It was as if the man invested a gravity in the sacrament that he himself struggled to contend with. Year after year he heard the same sins here, a milky dribble of resentments, betrayals, infidelities, all blurring into one another, all absolved as a matter of rote. It was hard to believe that a sinner, one in the gravest sense of the word, could turn to him in a moment of profound need, and not be infected by the same scorn and scepticism that oozed from the media, that was embedded in the letter of the law, and which Father Keegan felt even within his own family – his brother Mark, a dermatologist confidently serving the temple of the body, would often rib him about selling solace for the soul. He knew that’s how most people saw him now: a quaint curiosity at best; at worst, a spiritual crook.
‘If I can feel forgiveness, Father, it might help me control the things inside me.’
What choice was there? If he turned the man away, he’d have it on his conscience. If his faith were too weak to meet these needs, what was he even doing here? Was he just a charlatan like his brother teased, exploiting the fading bleats of the nation’s faith?
He had to try, if he believed at all. Or he could as well rise, lay down his smock and walk away.
And so, slowly, he intoned the Act of Contrition, as he’d done countless times down the years. Only now he abandoned the mechanical mutter he’d employed with poor Gerti and others, and spoke with an intensity that was itself a sort of plea.
With an eerie calm the words echoed back through the lattice. He felt warm breath on his cheek, inhaled the sweet scent of aftershave again, asked himself whether this man had really struck the life from another’s body. What if he were mad, confessing some wicked delusion? Or was such speculation just a symptom of Father Keegan’s own weakness?
The church bell donged twelve.
‘And now?’ the man asked.
‘In the name of Jesus Christ Our Lord, go in peace. From this day onwards, live for God, for your family. Break contact with that woman. If you need to talk, come to me. I won’t judge you. I won’t betray you. But you must promise.’
‘I’ll try, Father.’ There was a long pause. ‘I promise I’ll try.’
Another silence, as if the man wanted to add something. But then he stood and left the booth. Father Keegan longed to step out and get a good look at him, just in case, but told himself this was a test, the worldly realm against that of faith, and there was only one way to pass it. And so he listened in darkness while the man paced towards the church exit. As the sound faded, he remembered that distant November morning at the end of the last century when, not longer after his mother’s death, he’d experienced the call of God on an Atlantic-lashed beach. The way the dazzling sun had split the clouds. He never thought there’d be so many shades of grey in that light. Nor that his covenant with Christ could have a taste of real blood in it.
At last he left the booth, blinking as he emerged, like someone just woken from sleep. Under the huge stone vaults of God’s house he glanced around, aware of a presence. He half-expected to see the man who’d spoken to him standing at the entrance, defiant, taunting. But no. The church was empty except for one old woman kneeling at a distant pew, her head with its thatch of ash-coloured hair buried in her hands. It was Gerti, his loyal thief. Her whispered prayers whistled up the aisle, at once contrite and furious, as if attempting to atone for all men’s sins.
NEIL BRISTOW is from Dublin, Ireland. As a dramatist he has worked with, among others, the Abbey Theatre. His fiction has been published in various journals, most recently the Honest Ulsterman. He has an MA in Creative Writing from UCD.
One day he just went. There was no overriding reason, more a gut feeling spread to his heart, but it was difficult to explain that. Men are not expected to leave a marriage and all it contains without anywhere to go. Friends thought at first that he must have found a younger model, but in fact there was no model, of any sort, at all.
As he walked the familiar path to the gate, each step seemed at once momentous and everyday: a paradox which, he thought later, has to be lived to be understood. He hadn’t left a note. It was that spontaneous.
After a week in a Travelodge, he found a small and very plain bedsit. Then, following a brief phone conversation with Helen, his wife – their conversations had become increasingly brief since his departure – he returned to collect the rest of his clothes. They were waiting for him in two black bags on the doorstep.
It took little time for his body to realise what he had done: he lost seven kilos in a couple of weeks and had to remind himself to eat. It took his mind longer. Each day, even work days, now seemed elongated and full of excessive time, which had to be filled with living. He became aware that he was in an entirely different space, not just from friends and work colleagues, but from the person he had been very recently. And his conscience was behaving strangely.
He began to hold imaginary conversations, in essence apologies. But he found himself apologising less to his wife than to his dog, as the latter seemed the greater abandonment. His dog, after all, though not indifferent to his occasional failure to serve food on time, couldn’t be expected to appreciate and so allow for his wider fallibility. Whereas Helen had always exhibited a panoramic sense of his shortcomings.
Dogs, he reflected, by their nature must expect constancy until they are deprived of it, and then could not be hoped to empathise with the source of deprivation. And they remain perplexed by the sudden absence of an owner long after it has ceased to be sudden. Furthermore, he thought, it’s hard to feel ambivalent about a dog. They don’t irritate intentionally. And their loyalty tends to be uncomplicated, hence all the more deserving of reciprocation.
So he felt bad about the dog. Dogs beget habits, he thought, and Tink(er) had always seemed to appreciate the things he did repetitiously. But within marriage, he reflected, habits are so often our undoing. Whoever said ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff’ must have been single. And they can seem such innocent things: simple actions and sequences that bind people together and structure their lives. By abandoning them abruptly he had gone cold turkey, and was suddenly very aware of their absence. He thought about the daily rituals he had closed the door and walked away from.
One such was to leave the clothes he had worn in a heap in the corner of the bedroom, ready to be transferred to the laundry basket at an appropriate moment. Mistakenly, he now realised, he had seen this as a practical approach to the laundry cycle. More mistakenly still he had continued to view it in this light even after Helen suggested a different, more direct, sequence.
‘Put them straight in the basket,’ she had said. ‘They’re untidy and they stink.’
From such remarks, he realised, had grown a spirit of passive rebellion. He soon regarded that heap of clothes as self-defining: an emblem of his freedom. In retrospect this seemed both explicable and ill judged. Everything was nuanced, nothing straightforward.
Sitting alone on a single uncomfortable bed, he thought of a friend whose devotion to cycling had cost two marriages, and so approached the third by buying a tandem. Thus far the marriage had lasted, and his friend still cycled, undiminished. He felt he should be able to take something from this. But what? That compromise, if sufficiently ingenious, need not be capitulation? Or simply that you can spend your entire life groping for elusive compatibility?
‘You don’t know who you are,’ Helen said. She sat opposite him on the only chair. ‘And you’re not likely to find out here, are you?’
She had come to see him.
‘It’s given me time to think,’ he said. ‘Surely that’s a start.’ He felt very exposed, sitting there on the bed, and wondered if she did too. The room seemed too small for them both. And in her presence its shabbiness felt like an affront: even at home Helen dressed for the office. He looked at her and felt puzzled: linen, cashmere, tiny blue cufflinks, elegance. Quite alien in such a room.
‘You could think at home,’ she said.
‘We both need to become something else,’ he said, but as he said it didn’t know where the thought had come from.
‘Do you mean you want someone else?’ she said.
He shook his head. ‘That isn’t even part of it.’
Confusingly, she began to cry. He sat watching her, then went over to put his arm round her shoulders, and in those few steps felt extraordinary distance. He wondered how such a thing could happen so quickly.
She didn’t lean into him or encourage his touch, and he realised that she wept not for effect, or to share how she felt, but simply because she couldn’t help it.
‘Everyone is always a stranger,’ he thought, as though it was something he knew but had forgotten.
So he entered a form of limbo. People even used the word about his situation. He began to ponder it: a transitional state in which sins are expiated.
‘To be in this position I must have done wrong,’ he thought. This was confusing, because, having acted, he couldn’t imagine acting differently. Although friends, the ones who hadn’t abandoned him, now spoke as if he had made a choice.
They ceased to take this line when he also walked out of his job. For a man with no apparent family this seemed like leaving the world. And then he left his flat. He went to see Helen before taking the next step: he thought it only right. Her hair, now unharnessed, hung simply on her shoulders, and the tautness he remembered in her brow and temples had also gone. He saw the person he thought he once loved as she would be now their lives had ceased to coincide. The change had taken very little time, it seemed.
‘My past is not my future,’ he thought, ‘and neither is hers.’
The next day he rose at dawn and drove till late evening. When he reached it, the island, rising steeply out of the bay, solidified the image he had carried from pictures. A mile long tidal causeway separated it from the mainland and he could see the August gorse and heather from the bank. The job advert for a lighthouse keeper had attracted five hundred applicants, but he had been chosen, not so much for his engineering skills – ‘engineers are ten a penny,’ the panel had told him, but for a quality of solitariness that convinced them he could exist alone for most of each week.
Once he had settled in the tiny stone cottage, high up on the rock and close by his towering workplace, he spent two days being inducted by his manager, Ross Johnson, a former petty officer, then bought a dog from a shepherd on the mainland. They quickly fused together and spent hours walking the island, the dog attentive to his every step and mood.
Over time, solitude and the absence of conversation lent his memories clarity, and he saw his previous life as a series of tableaux. But there was no continuity, it seemed. It was not as though one episode led to another, more that when something ended something else began. Nothing that had happened to him would have allowed him to imagine himself as he was now, but neither could he conjure a sense of his current self in any past guise. It was as though he was granted a span of time to inhabit specific circumstances and then the lease ran out. The realisation came as a sort of epiphany: it was this, almost a force beyond himself, that had cost him family, friends and indeed a marriage.
‘Other people’s lives are joined up,’ he thought. ‘Mine isn’t. The time I’m in now will lead to nothing, except perhaps another start.’ He felt a paw on his knee, and realised his dog was looking at him intently, as though it could read his thoughts.
‘It’s the same for you as well, isn’t it, McGregor?’ he said, laughing. ‘No wonder we understand each other.’ And suddenly he realised how long it had been since he’d found anything funny.
But as he pondered this idea further it was as though something had been released: he saw himself in a given time, in a given place, liberated from both past and future, free to be whoever he was, if for an undefined period.
Each day, however, was given distinct shape by his duties, which involved detailed and cyclical maintenance of the lighthouse mechanisms and fabric, also by McGregor’s insistence on regularity. He recognised that, however much the little creature shared his relish for the present moment, the ancient rhythms of farm life ran in its veins, and structured its expectations. So he rose, ate, worked and exercised accordingly.
And he began to make the island their home, albeit for whatever period fate might decree. Seeking permission from Ross Johnson, he built a timber awning onto the cottage, and sat out with McGregor in the light northern evenings, watching the moods and colours of the sea. Above them a revolving white light flashed every thirty seconds with, his manager explained, the power of thirty thousand candles.
‘Enough to light every church in the country,’ he had added, with a raised eyebrow.
In fact there was something church-like in the steep brick tower: the exterior venerable, the interior groping for modernity. Each day he climbed the eighty winding steps, trailing a cloth along the brass handrail to ward off tarnish. He cleaned the lantern panes inside and out and sprayed the weather vane with silica, and then took time to stand on the balcony, looking west into the ocean. The beam that shone from the lantern through fog and darkness had a nominal range of twenty-three nautical miles – farther than eyesight, but not nearly as far as imagination. His job, he told himself, was to foster this span of light.
Once a week he went to the mainland for provisions, and if the causeway was flooded, he rowed across the bay. McGregor, who loved even the coldest water, somehow knew to stay aboard until they reached the quay. The boat he had inherited was old, its faded blue hull scudded by tides and salt wind, but once afloat it held up.
‘Just don’t take it out if the sea cuts up rough,’ Ross Johnson had warned. ‘Because it won’t get you back.’
These words returned to him as he sat outside the cottage, huddling under a shared blanket with McGregor, as dusk fell and a cool westerly rose slowly in force. Increasingly, he was growing to appreciate the vitality of nature, and to find in the wind its most potent expression.
The night ferry came in, not ethereal as in quiet weather, but scuttling for cover like a man without a raincoat. He knew all the fishing boats by now, and had counted each one safely home. The wind built in strength and the weather vane skittered high above them. He was just planning to move indoors when he noticed a small vessel entering the mouth of the bay. He raised the binoculars that now lived on a cord round his neck and saw two figures in an open boat, powered only by a small outboard motor. This was unusual. Both commercial craft and holiday makers could be expected to have settled for harbour once faced with these conditions.
As the boat drew closer he recognised the figures as a man and a woman, youngish, and not well dressed for the sea. The man steered and the woman clung to the seat beneath her. The boat struggled towards the quay, and had reached the centre of the bay when it flipped. In an instant he found himself racing down to the shoreline, McGregor running urgently at his side. He reached his rowing boat and pushed it out into the waves, leaving McGregor behind to bark furiously at the foaming water.
Immediately the harsh waves, with their threat of death, were all around. He rowed out with all his strength, aware as he did so that he felt no fear. It seemed strange to be conscious of this at such a time. His mission was to save life, but he found himself wanting no more from his own existence than whatever each moment might provide. No dream, no plan, no aspiration from the past could compare with how he felt now, in that small boat on the bay, with the vast sea beyond. He was acting, almost organically, as the situation demanded.
He reached the couple, who were clinging to the upturned hull of their boat, and pulled them into the skiff by gripping each in turn beneath their armpits and falling backwards. For a moment they slithered on the soaking wood like netted fish, then pulled themselves into a seated position as he reset the oars and began to steer them back. They were both shivering violently, but his exertion lent his body heat as he pulled the boat through the bucking water, never doubting that they would all be safe.
When they reached the island he stepped into the spume and hauled the boat aground, as McGregor danced before him in a frenzy. He led them to the warmth of the cottage, ran hot baths, lent makeshift clothes, then fed them lentil broth and malt whisky. He gave them his bed and slept on the sofa with McGregor. In the morning, with the sea again tranquil, he rowed them ashore and returned to the island.
Word went round the small town and the event was recorded first in local then national papers. It was thought to be decades since a lighthouse keeper had carried out what was once a traditional duty, especially with such noticeable valour.
‘You did well, but you were damned lucky,’ Ross Johnson said, when they reviewed the incident formally. ‘Next time call the coast guard. And by the way you’ll see an increase in your salary from next month.’
Soon enough it all quietened down and he was left alone again: now, however, without the anonymity he realised he had cherished. His cover, though he hadn’t previously thought of it as cover, had been blown. For a while everyone he met on his weekly expedition for provisions told him he was brave.
In quiet moments he struggled with this. ‘Can bravery exist where fear is absent?’ he asked himself.
But there was no doubt, as months passed, that he had developed a taste for the sea. When time allowed he found himself rowing out more frequently, first in the bay, then further into open water. On these occasions, which he kept from Ross Johnson, McGregor learned to wait where the boat would rest when it returned. And inevitably, it seemed, the vast ocean stayed mild for him. Instead, he felt his own power, uncompromised by any human contact, as he pulled due north beyond the morning tide and on into the swell beyond.
It was on a cool March afternoon that McGregor was found, cold and wet but steadfast, waiting by the water. With no reply from the lighthouse or cottage, Ross Johnson had made his way to the boat, or where it would have been. He immediately alerted the coast guard, his training as a naval man overriding what he thought he knew in his heart, and a search, like another phase of life, began.
MIKE FOX is a therapist who most recently specialised in working with people with haematological cancer. He has co-authored a book and published many articles on the human repercussions of illness. His stories have appeared in The London Journal of Fiction, Popshot, Confingo, and Structo, and were awarded second prize in the 2014 and 2016 Bedford International Short Story Competition. His website is www.polyscribe.co.uk
Manny’s heart beat fast and close as if it had found its way out of his body, concealed only by the thin white cotton of his shirt. He sat upstairs at the back of the bus with Paul, only occasionally looking down, amazed that they were holding hands, fingers interlaced.
Manny and Paul had grown up in the maze of a north London estate, a slip road away from the A406, that tarmac-kissed artery skirting the city and leading to its greater and outer edges. They were travelling down that same dual carriageway, and Manny found himself measuring time through the stop-start motion of the bus as it pulled up beside steel and glass shelters. To him, the bus was full of possibilities: the seats were covered in black and green fabric and splashed with scarlet, like blood spilt on grass. The stanchions waiting to steady its passengers grew from them in curves like the branches of trees aiming for the sky.
Manny’s mum was always saying that they were twins under the skin, partners in crime: cheeky, but not bad boys. Both were doing well at university.
So what are we now? Manny asked himself.
As Paul looked out of the window down to the street below, Manny gazed at his profile. There was no doubt about it. He knew, and his sister said it often enough: Paul was hot. His hair was shaved neat and low, his face framed by the sharpness of his sideburns. Manny smiled to himself as he took in Paul’s nose which, he teased his friend often, was broad and equine, with prominent nostrils. Why the long face? Paul’s skin was dark brown, darker than Manny’s. The quizzical wavy lines of his lips made Manny wonder what Paul was thinking, but Paul remained silent.
He freed his hand to press the bell for the next stop.
‘This one’s ours,’ he said.
SONIA HOPE is a short story writer based in London. She is a member of the African Caribbean Heritage Writers Group and is the Librarian at Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre. This is her first published story. Her website is soniahope.co.uk
The wind pushed his floatplane into a Canadian lake. He survived the impact, the breaking of wings. ‘Everyone OK?’ he yelled, and the water poured in. She would hear about this. He wondered if she would hurt. He couldn’t know that they would only find his gear: the tackle box busted open, his fishing rods snapped, the lures glittered on the plane’s floor. The fuselage – separated from its pontoons – had started to sink. He shrugged free of his seatbelt and dove for the submerged door. His breath was taken by the cold, his lungs aching. No one would know how long he struggled with the door. Had it opened as the water filled him? Had he pleaded please God, make me a fish?
They met in a fish house, out on the ice. He was the brother of her friend Sarah, and a fisherman by trade. With an auger he drilled a hole in the ice. Vodka passed amongst them, and Polly wondered if they would catch a fish in spite of the laughter.
She was impressed with him. A smile like new snow as he pulled on a line. ‘Gotta jiggle the line every once in a while,’ he said. Dedication was the word she was looking for. While the others drank and chatted, he fished.
‘The better part of fishing is waiting, isn’t it?’ she said.
‘So it may appear, but no.’
‘Then what is it? Drinking?’ she handed him the bottle.
He thought for a moment, took a swig, closed his eyes. ‘My family, we’ve always fished,’ he said, ‘it’s not because we need to. Hunger would rob fishing of its beauty, I think. No, I think the better part of fishing is just fishing to fish.’
‘So it doesn’t matter if you catch anything?’
‘Not really, just being out on the water or the ice with some good company. That’s good enough.’ He seemed to believe it, so she did as well.
They drank, occasionally dragging a lake trout out of the ebon water. Polly wormed in next to him, leaning on him as she laughed. He did not pull away. When they had enough, he cleaned the fish outside and cooked the filets on an electric griddle. He knew that in his absence Sarah would give her a look. ‘Are you hitting on my brother?’
Polly would want to lie, but would only manage a shrug.
‘Don’t,’ Sarah would say, but let slip a wry smile. A blessing perhaps?
They ate the grilled filets and polished off the last of the vodka. A weariness settled over the fish house. Content, they resolved to go home.
When Polly stumbled, it was him that caught her.
‘I’ll take her home,’ he said.
She gave him her address and slept as he drove through a world of black and white, snow banks at the edge of the road, flakes blurring through the headlights. Pulling into the drive he spoke her name, and she awoke.
‘Here we are,’ he said.
‘I’ll probably need help getting to the door,’ she said. He steadied her, his hands on her shoulders, and they walked up to the door.
‘Will you be OK to get home?’ she asked.
‘I’ll be fine.’
‘It was a good time.’
Yes, it had been.
She moved forward – almost falling – and hugged him. Her cheek melted the snowflakes on his jacket. He kissed her forehead then opened the front door for her.
‘Goodnight,’ he said.
‘I’ll see you again?’
The jacket was his, blue flannel and fraying at the shoulder seams. He left it at her little apartment the day he cooked beef stew for her. Polly had been sick at home, and when he had received word he showed up at her door, wrapped in the blue flannel a full Tupperware bowl in his hands.
Polly insisted that he leave, that he shouldn’t see her this way. She said he would fall ill too.
‘It would be worth it,’ he said.
He warmed the stew on her stovetop until steam rose from the pot. Polly sat and ate, cloaked in blankets and pajamas. He sat with her, saying nothing, yet it occurred to Polly that it was not because there was nothing to say, but rather because their being together required nothing else. A cake that needed no icing. Perhaps he had felt that way.
When Polly finished her stew, he stood to leave.
‘I’ll go and let you rest.’
She thanked him for the stew and he hugged her. But this time when he moved to kiss her forehead she pulled him down and her lips touched his. When they had released each other, he removed his jacket and hung it from her coatrack. He made to leave.
‘Won’t you need the jacket?’ she asked.
‘Nah,’ he said. He would have to come back for it when he got back in town.
‘Where are you headed?’
‘Up to Canada. I’m taking some rich fellow fishing.’
‘I hope you catch a lot of fish,’ she said, ‘even if it doesn’t matter whether you do or not.’
There’s no accounting for anything. Polly knew it at once. The phone call. Sarah’s tears would have dripped through the mouthpiece and all the way to Polly’s ear. Driving to her friend’s house, she knew the whole time. There were more cars than usual parked in the driveway. Sarah sat crying on the stairs. She hugged Polly, her wet cheeks cold against her own. She said, ‘They can’t find him. They can’t find him.’
Polly knew better than to hope, but hope she did. She fought the urge to explain or reason any of it. Instead, she asked, ‘What can I do?’ She thought of what she could cook for them. She answered the phone for them when people called. She washed their dirty dishes.
After she left them, in the still of her apartment Polly could hear the word never. She sat in the dark, telling herself not to look at the coatrack. She wanted to tell herself that it would have been better had they never met, even if that wasn’t true.
The family waited and hoped for two cold months before they arranged a funeral. The town, though small, had poured into the funeral home. Polly had arrived early enough to catch Sarah before the service had started, to see if she or her family needed anything.
‘You’ve done enough for us. Thank you.’
Polly took her seat at the end of a crimson cushioned pew, her eyes eschewing the walnut casket, the hollow centerpiece of a tragic tableau. Instead, she caught herself eyeing his family, his mother spangled in black, father resting his head in his hands. She wished desperately to sit among them, separate from all the friends and acquaintances, and when she realized this she felt herself blush. Who was she to compare her grief to theirs? She had barely known the man, even if that little knowledge had seemed enough. Had the family known what he had become to her? She was still dismayed at how his brief presence had left her with such marvelous wounds. Or was it her that had left the wounds? Had she not carved out a little of herself to allow for his inclusion in her life? Now there was only a cavity – hollow as his casket – that ached and could not be filled.
By the casket was a photograph of him, younger than she’d known him. How had that young man turned into the man of dedicated stillness? Her eyes fell to her feet. She wouldn’t let them see her cry. Better to keep what she had to herself.
After the service Polly shuffled and twitched in the line of mourners. What could she say to the family, waiting patiently beside the casket? Would she tell them that she had loved their son, even though she had never really known him, that she felt hollow when he was not around? Who was she to tell them that?
When Polly came before them, they recognized her as Sarah’s friend. She shook their cold hands and said, ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry.’ She couldn’t meet their eyes. And she found herself at his casket, struck dumb by the fact that he wasn’t in it and never would be. All she could do was reach out to touch the smooth walnut.
Polly woke on New Year’s Day at her parent’s house, head throbbing from the night’s celebrations. Dirty wineglasses littered the sink, paper plates stuffed the wastebasket. She thought everyone would sleep until noon or later. How they had danced! Blue Swede blasting in the air I’m hooked on a feeling. Polly had faked it well, dancing with them, yet not willing to tell them she’d rather sleep, because in sleep she may dream, and in dreams the dead could come alive.
Polly finished a cup of coffee and drifted into the mud room. She put on her snow boots and his blue flannel jacket even though it swamped her. She had taken to wearing it, one last ditched effort to hang on to him.
In the garage she found what she was looking for: her father’s old rod and reel, a spin-caster with a neon-green jig, and a splitting maul.
She trudged through the morning’s snow and down the drive to the frozen pond at the edge of her parent’s property. Her father and his father before had always kept the pond stocked with fish, smallmouth bass she remembered. She had always ignored the fish, preferring to swim in the summer or skate in the winter, but now she would not ignore them.
Polly walked out onto the little pier and set the spin-caster down. She took the splitting maul, and even though she knew it would scare the fish, she started to chop away at the ice. On her third swing, the maul buried into the ice, stuck. She had to kick it free and lean over the pond to recover it. She kept swinging until she finally broke through and the cold water showered her, droplets like diamonds hanging on the blue flannel. Steamed breaths wheezed out of her. She dropped the little jig into the pool. She could see it three feet down, a tiny light shining in the dark water.
BRYN AGNEW lives in Missoula, Montana where he attends the MFA program at the University of Montana. He has a BA and MA in creative writing from the University of North Texas. His stories and essays have appeared in Mid-American Review and North Texas Review.