W E I G H T
By Dawn Lowe
I saw a Good Samaritan beside the road and stopped the car.
He held a sign: SPACE SUIT FOR SALE
He was old, thin and wasted. The space suit lay in the dust at his feet, white and shiny, a US flag on its chest.
“How much?” I asked.
“$1,500,” he said. “Cash.”
I put the space suit in the back seat of my car and the old man got in beside it. The suit, seated like a passenger, was three inches taller than the Samaritan.
“Where’d you get it?” I asked.
He shrugged. “I was an astronaut.”
“What’s your name?”
“Does it matter? Once you’re grounded, they all forget.”
I drove to my bank and gave him $2,000.
“Brother,” he said, “You’re one crazy bastard, but thanks.”
Yes, I’d gone crazy.
Money was useless against the weight of her pain, waiting in the waiting rooms.
She loved Star Trek, Star Wars, all the sci-fi rubbish, and I knew she’d love the suit. She was thin and wasted and would swim in it—but what did it matter?
She couldn’t talk, but her eyes said Thanks.
I helped her put it on, and laid her on the grass so she could stare at the stars. I connected a hose to the suit’s air intake valve and started the car, waiting for her to become weightless.
Now I wait by the road with a sign: SPACE SUIT FOR SALE
By Alan Balkema
The Grim Reaper helped Faith off the floor.
“Am I dead?”
“No, but soon.” His voice was soft and gentle.
Faith examined his cowled head, his thin skin stretched over the cranium, his eyes glazed and vacant, the look of her husband when he died in her arms forty years ago.
“You look just like the artists depict you.”
“Yes, I am well known among animals,” he replied.
He led her into the bedroom, her ankles and knees free of the arthritic pain she’d long grown accustomed to and her legs moving with an assurance that she could vaguely remember.
He pulled the covers aside. She settled into her side of the bed, which still held a warmth from her body.
“My head hurts back here.” She touched the throbbing spot. “Ouch!”
“When you fell you hit your head on the tub.”
“Why didn’t you catch me?”
“Your fall summoned me, Faith. When you hit your head you were knocked back into consciousness.”
She lowered her arm, worked it under the covers, and placed one hand on top of the other over her breast. It seemed like the logical place to put them.
“Would you like me to help you call someone to be with you?”
“Do you have to go?”
“I am at your disposal.”
“Then, no. I find your company good.”
“You’re not afraid to die?”
“No. My children and grandchildren are grown. I’ve finished quilts for all of them. I can’t see well enough to quilt or to read anymore. It seems time to go. Perhaps I’ve overstayed a bit.”
Her telephone rang.
“That’s my daughter. How long do I have?”
He slightly tilted his head.
“If my time is short I will not answer. I don’t want to hear her plans for the day. They are all the same, and she goes into too much detail. If my time is long I will answer, because if I don’t she will be here in thirty minutes, and then I’ll be in the hospital again. So, can you tell me?”
“Don’t answer the phone.”
Faith settled back into the worn spot in her mattress. All these years of sleeping alone were about to end. She smiled.
“I’m glad you’re here.”
By Serena Molloy
I was hanging the wash on the clothesline, full sure it would not be there when I went back to get it. I had only moved into the house a week ago, and in that time the Atlantic wind had never stopped blowing. It howled day and night. I would lie in bed alone trying to decide which of my three children I would save first, should the great oak outside come crashing into the rented house. In my head, it wasn’t a matter of if but when. I struggled to peg my daughter’s tiny jeans down. They kept flapping into my face saying,
See, I told you so. You won’t make it on your own.
It was then that I first saw him, angry and brown. His bulging eyes fixed on me. I should have been scared, but I wasn’t. Fury has no room for fear. There was only a simple barbed wire fence separating us. Not enough to stop him.
He started to scrape the ground with his hoof and snorted wildly at me. I stared back. I continued pegging up the clothes, overjoyed that he was becoming more enraged. He shook his head from side to side, spit and snot now dripping from his nostrils. I hung the last little sock up and stood a while, looking at him. Then I stuck my tongue out and turned and walked slowly into the house.
This became our routine.
Whenever I was in the back garden, he would lumber up, his huge old body shadowing me. He would snort and stamp and even run at the wire, but I never flinched. Not once.
And as the seasons changed in that God-forsaken place, he was always there. A constant. Frost covered the grass and I was out in the garden less often. I would watch him from the conservatory. I would howl and shout at him, willing him to come after me. Wishing he would break through the fence and come crashing into the glass.
I was planting begonias in the flower bed close to the fence, surprised he hadn’t come. I heard the sound of a tractor in the distance, its hum getting closer like an approaching bee. I stood up to see. The tractor and trailer stopped at the bottom of the field. And then I saw him, lying on his back, his legs pointing to the sky, stiff. They got the tarpaulin under him and using the winch on the trailer, they hoisted him up.
Then they were gone.
He was gone.
I lived in that house only a short while after that. It was never the same again for me.
By Gerry Moloney
At night he dreams about her.
It’s been fifty-seven years since he last saw her, last embraced her, last kissed her. It was that night in August. The next day he had left there forever. She was wearing a blue polka-dot dress. Her golden hair loose. Rarely a night has gone by since then without him dreaming of her.
Fifty-seven years. He reflects on the speed of time. A morse code. A dot, a dash? More like a flash. All a bit hazy now. Fifty-seven years of ritual. Rising, eating, working, resting. And dreaming of her.
Now he knows his end is near. He wonders if they will meet again? Will she be there, or has she yet to get there? And what will Peter’s judgment be at the Gates?
In his slumber he hears low mumbled tones at the foot of his bed. His brothers are praying for him.
Through the stillness he hears the door creak and opens his eyes slightly to see the doctor. “How are we now?” the doctor enquires, feeling the pulse and exchanging a glance with Father John who stands in the shadows. “Fading fast,” he murmurs.
Father John leans over the pillow. “Sorry Pat, we will all miss you. But we know you are a truly wise man who has lived a good life.” He smiles reassuringly.
The dying man smiles back. Father John administers the last rites. He places a few drops of consecrated wine on the man’s lips. “Do this in memory of me.” Will her lips taste as sweet as they did fifty-seven years ago? Will she be there in her blue polka-dot dress to welcome him? Will her hair be golden still?
He becomes acutely aware of his senses. He sees a bright cloud appear on an azure sky. He hears music swelling softly. Strings playing slowly and rising to a crescendo. A weight lifting from his body. He becomes all yielding. His face lights faintly with an ethereal smile.
Father John steps forward and closes Pat’s eyelids. He blesses himself and murmurs a prayer. Then he turns to the brothers at the end of the bed and addresses the older one. “Ring out the Monastery Bell so that our Community may know that Brother Pat has gone to his eternal reward.”
By Barbara Clinton
Close to midnight, and through the giant lettering on the window, Jason sees his first customer in half an hour before he pushes through the door. Without hesitation, the man orders just spring rolls and stuffs a take-away menu in the pocket of his raincoat.
Cold air has followed the customer in, and Jason rolls down his shirtsleeves and rubs his arms. He shouts the order through the hatch door over his shoulder, rings up the three euro handed over in change, and waits.
The man steps back and begins the usual investigation of the upright poker machine. He’s intrigued by the rows of flat-faced buttons that offer to open up the world of Las Vegas here in chilly Dublin. He hits a button, the machine chirrups and the screen flashes ‘Please Insert Money To Play’.
He inserts no money. Jason’s still hoping the machine might catch on – to relieve takeaway boredom while making him extra cash.
A phone ringing announces the arrival of his next customer. She searches blind within the cavern of her bag as she comes through the door, drawing the phone out too late, to address nobody with ‘Hi, this is Amanda.’
Amanda scans the menu on top of the counter and orders:
‘Can I get one beef satay, one Peking duck, one order of spring rolls and a prawn toast, please?’
‘Boiled or fried rice?’
And then: ‘Oh, and wontons and prawn crackers, please.’
The poker machine Gambler registers she’s ordered enough food for two, and late.
‘If you spend €15 you get prawn crackers free,’ Jason tells Amanda. ‘You’ve already spent €13.50 – so …’ Amanda declines the offer with a headshake that seems ambiguous to the Gambler.
‘Are you from around here?’ Jason asks her. This takes the Gambler by surprise but he stares resolutely at the flashing buttons and waits. If it threw Amanda she doesn’t show it.
The Gambler thinks this could go either way – and finding a coin his pocket, resists the urge to use it. He passes it between his fingers, still inside his pocket, and listens.
‘Yes, just up the road.’ The Gambler is surprised she’s given actual information. In his experience, women don’t like being chatted up in takeaways after closing time.
‘But your accent? It’s not from here?’ Jason asks, and the Gambler wonders if he does this with every good-looking woman who comes in? What if other women are in? The Gambler doesn’t think they’d like it much. Waiting for something in black bean sauce, listening to your man chat up the other woman?
But he’s surprised to hear: ‘I’m originally from England – the west of England.’ He’s never heard that before – the West counties, yes; the north, yes; the south, the midlands – yes.
She has a good figure and nice hair, a kind of dirty blonde. He wonders if it’s her own colour; a lot of women colour their hair. But he never knew unless they told him and he hadn’t been that far along with anyone for a while.
‘So you work around here?’
The Gambler is thinking for a man with so much interest in a woman, Jason really isn’t paying attention.
‘No, live. I live just up the road.’ Remember? Jason betrays the slightest blush, though it’s interest rather than embarrassment, the Gambler thinks.
And then, unprovoked, she offers: ‘I work on Merrion Square.’
‘In the casino?’ Jason presses. But Amanda says: ‘No, I have a real job,’ but she’s smiling.
‘Do you know it, the Merrion Casino?’ Jason’s smiling too. Smooth. ‘I used to work there.’ He needs to stay on the one piece of common ground he’s found.
‘No,’ she says. ‘I walk along the same side of the square every day. It must be on the other side or maybe in a basement.” Is she apologising, judging or explaining?
‘There are a lot of colleges there.’ Jason refuses to give up on Merrion Square. ‘Do you know the American University?’
‘Do you like to go to the movies?’ he asks at last.
This boy has cruised long enough, the Gambler’s thinking.
‘Yes.’ Amanda is equally impressed.
‘What do you think of Miss America?’
‘I haven’t seen it but I think it might be a bit cheesy,’ Amanda ventures.
‘Yes, it might be cheesy,’ he agrees. ‘I’m off tomorrow; we could go and see it?’
A move so long in the making, finally made, still manages the element of surprise.
But the Gambler thinks the guy may be missing something. And sure enough she says: ‘The food, it’s also for my boyfriend,’ who the Gambler now pictures at home, just up the road, becoming distracted from his footie by his hunger and beginning to wonder where his woman is.
‘That’s okay,’ Jason says.
What does that mean? the Gambler wonders. Is he still hoping for the date, is he saying he’s undeterred by the boyfriend? Or that he’s stepping back?
‘Oh, have you paid?’ The Gambler looks. He wants to catch the expression of a guy who shifts ground so seamlessly. Amanda brings out her wallet, can only find €50, says, ‘Sorry, that’s all I’ve got’ and hands it over.
Jason takes the money and while they are united in the exchange, says: ‘I talked a lot so that maybe we could have an understanding.’
What a line, what a finish, thinks the Gambler. She’s impressed. Shit, I’m impressed. She’s going home to a hungry boyfriend but I bet she’s not going to tell him about this.
A bell buzzes, the hatch door opens and an order of spring rolls is handed through. The Gambler says thank you and steps back into the cold.
By Caroline Hurley
“Master Scot, Sir, a delivery for you.”
The footman bows slightly, within his comfort zone; just enough to display deference.
“Yes, Joshua, my good man, what is it?”
Joshua takes a thick roughly-bound book from under his arm and hands it to his employer.
“You won’t like this, m’lord.”
“Why’s that now?”
Reginald Scot tugs the ribbon running from the spine of the leather-covered manuscript, peers closely at it and sighs before probing with his fingers inside the top pocket of his well-worn tweed jacket to retrieve a monocle attached by a chain. He fits this into his eye socket and tries again.
“The Anatomy of Legerdemain,” he reads. “By Hocus Pocus. Harumph! Who sent this, Joshua?”
“One of your old Oxford friends dropped it by this morning, Sir. He said you’d not be pleased the writer made chunks of your book re-appear in his own.”
Leafing through the pages, Scot shook his head.
“Damned scoundrel! He doesn’t know what he’s doing. This mustn’t be printed, not after what happened with mine.”
Scot looks desolately out through the arched window across his verdant groves of hop trees. It isn’t his illustrated pioneering manual on hop culture that ran into a few editions after its first print in 1574 he has in mind though. It’s the work published a decade later that he regards as much more important; that he sweated and groaned over, and risked his parliamentary career for. Called The Discovery of Witchcraft, it was itself cursed.
Scot harboured a fondness and admiration for those entertainers who hung onto the coat-tails of travelling circuses. The jokers and conjurers, revered and applauded by humankind over millennia for their abilities to fox the rules of nature. The fakers ̶ or fakirs, amongst which counted Moses, for making water gush from a rock, and turning a rope into a snake. Sickened by the murderous mass vendetta relentlessly waged against these heirs of the ancient shamans and sorcerers, Scot took it upon himself to appeal to the king, Jacques 1 of Scotland, on behalf of magicians who were still being accused of diabolic sorcery and burned at the stake all over Europe.
Scot was weighed down with regret that, rather than helping to end their persecution, he had accidentally betrayed his entrancing friends by unsuccessfully trying to distinguish between calculated charlatanism and harmless sleight-of-hand. He wished he’d simply argued, as the Frenchman Prevost did around the same time, that performing tricks for fun should be classified as merely ‘scientific amusements’: a reformulation which nudged many practitioners to don a protective mantle by designating themselves ‘doctor’ or ‘professor’. As well as divulging secrets of their trade, however, copies of Scot’s book were burned along with more condemned clowns.
Heavy-hearted, Scot resolves to prevent Hocus Pocus, whoever he is, from meeting the same fate. With a new century about to dawn, in a world where power gagged the artists of illusion with their innocent mirrors of truth, Scot has become disenchanted to death.
By Alan Balkema
We called ourselves the commandos. Mark had been my best friend since we’d met in the first grade, and now, at the age of twelve, we were pretty sure we had everything figured out. Mark’s brother Paul was a year older but goofy enough to find us mature; I liked him a lot.
We were sitting in our normal spot, the back pew on the side of the church furthest from the pulpit. Our row of pews was separated from the main seating section of the church by a carpeted aisle. Half of the pews were empty that day.
While Reverend Peacock blathered away we were engaged in a spirited game of pass-it-on. Making liberal use of the words snot, poop, piss, and fart, one of us would construct a sentence and whisper it into a neighbor’s ear. The hearer would add a twist to the sentence and pass it on. Since there were only three of us and I was in the middle, I had more opportunities to contribute. This was my favorite church game, and I was having a great time, though, of course, in the middle of Sunday service we had to maintain appearances. I made the mistake of pretending to slap my knee in hilarity.
“You boys back there!” Peacock thundered.
We instantly straightened in our pew with somber expressions, imagining haloes over our heads, but Peacock had his right arm extended and his index finger pointed straight at us.
“You are disrupting a holy service on the Lord’s day. You’re disgracing Jesus Christ! You’re disrespecting me and the members of this congregation.” He drew himself taller behind the pulpit. “If your parents don’t care enough to keep you in check, I do, and I will.”
The accusatory finger hung in the air for what seemed like an hour. The congregation turned in their pews to see who the sacrilegious culprits were except for the occupants of the pew directly in front of us. There sat my mother and sisters.
Eventually the finger dropped, and Peacock resumed the service. We knew what was coming. If our houses had mantles, “Spare the Rod and Spoil the Child” would be carbed in fancy script on them.
After a final hymn Peacock left the pulpit to take his usual spot at the door. The congregation moved to deliver the obligatory handshake. We knew that our parents were about to reassure the disrespected minister that punishment would follow.
While the congregation lined up like sheep, we bolted for the church’s back door and exchanged our goodbyes in the parking lot. Normally high-spirited after release from the drudgery of another sermon, we parted as condemned combatants about to face the firing squad. Mark and Paul had extra cause for alarm. Their father was a school principal and was practiced in the art of punishment. I counted myself lucky in that my father had missed the day’s service. He would’ve taken the minister’s challenge very personally.
After an icily silent drive home, Mark’s parents retreated behind closed doors. Then they called the boys into the living room.
“You know the standard punishment is three whacks,” the principal intoned. “But you face punishment not only for mischief. You have committed a sacrilege. I put it to you. What would be a suitable punishment?”
Paul and Mark stood, heads bowed, jaws clenched. Mark guessed that Paul would speak first and land them in more trouble.
“I don’t know why the reverend was so mad,” Paul said. “We were listening to the sermon.”
“The minister was mistaken, then?”
“Could you relate the message in today’s sermon?”
“We’re all sinners and going to hell.”
“Could you be more specific?”
“The seven deadly sins,” said Mark.
“Can you name them?”
“Yes, sir. Lust, pride, envy, uh, greed … “
“Gluttony,” Paul chipped in. “War. Scorn?” He held up seven fingers to confirm the tally.
“I think you should add another whack for lying,” Paul’s mom said.
“I’m inclined to agree,” said the father. “How many are we up to, Paul?”
“Seven, sir. One for each of the deadly sins.”
Mark was flabbergasted at the steep inflation.
“Fitting. And you will name a sin with each whack. Who shall go first?”
Paul, the oldest, led off and persisted with war and scorn. For this he received nine, an extra blow for each error. Mark faltered after number five but received a celestial message.
“Wrath,” he croaked a moment after the sixth. “Sloth.”
His father had begun the windup for an additional blow but lowered the paddle. He didn’t seem winded at all from the exertion.
“Now,” Mark’s mother said. “You will sit in the pew with us from now on. We will tolerate no foolishness. Do I make myself clear?”
The boys acknowledged the new restriction and were sent to wash up for dinner.
Mark, still limping, related all this to me on Monday at school. He wanted to know what punishment I had endured. I was reluctant to tell him.
Our house was nearby, so my family walked to church. I always ran home, went upstairs, changed out of the hated suit and tie, and continued my weekend routine until called down to eat. After I ran home this Sunday, I sat in a chair facing the door to await my fate. My sisters returned home singly. My oldest sister was humiliated and assured me I deserved what was coming. My younger sister was crying in sympathy with me, and wished me the best before joining her sister upstairs.
Mom walked in the door and slowly sized me up.
“You weren’t any worse than usual,” she said and retreated to her bedroom to change clothes.
That was the first time I ever thought my mother was cool.
By Dawn Lowe
“I made tiramisu.” Friska shovels a loaf-sized portion on my plate. “It’s not so good.”
She hovers as I taste the tiramisu. “It’s good,” I say, and she frowns.
She disappears into the kitchen, returning with a jug of brown liquid. “To drink.”
She fills my glass.
I gulp it and choke.
“Whiskey,” she says. “People from Ireland must have whiskey.” She’s not Irish, but she pours herself a glass.
Wooshing away in her silk dress, she brings another jug of brown liquid from the kitchen.
“Tea,” she says. “For my husband when he wakes up and joins us … If he does.”
Sitting at an outdoor table, she and I listen to a cuckoo and watch the sunset. It’s the first time I’ve had whiskey and tiramisu together, and it’s not a good marriage.
We hear shuffling footsteps and Friska sighs.
“My husband is coming. He is old … 90. There are 32 years between us.”
He wobbles outdoors, rail thin and silver-haired. He says a few words in Slovenian and she performs introductions in English. The old man looks lost.
She pours him a cup of tea. They exchange a few words and she translates:
“He wants cheese.”
When she leaves to get the cheese, the old man switches glasses with me. He takes a swallow of whiskey and cackles.
Friska returns with cheese and sniffs her husband’s drink. She slaps the top of his head, says something in Slovenian and he goes back inside the house with his drink.
I am feeling the whiskey. “You’re only 58. You could send him to a nursing home.”
She shakes her head. “The old man grows into the child I never had.”
I watch the cuckoo flap away to roost for the night.
By Caroline Hurley
The magician can only pull so many rabbits out of the hat before it dries up.
This line was etched inside the card that was delivered to me last week. It sticks in my head, morphing into an omen, a warning that the good times may be over.
The ‘what’ that is drying up? It’s hardly the hat. No, it must be the magic; the essence that can’t go on forever.
When you’re in the flow of it, with the sun shining, flowers blooming, children tumbling, love in the air all around—the full works of the fairy-tale—the supply seems endless. How could it ever stop? You couldn’t make it go away if you tried, not that you’d want to. When it’s gone, so is the secret joy, just as genius died with the wunderkind Houdini.
No one had signed the card, unless with an invisible hallmark.
The message only was printed inside, while the front was emblazoned with a cartoon image of a magic show. I’d received unsigned cards before, but I’d thought nothing of them.
The first card showed a grinning harlequin in vivid multi-colour, dancing under falling stars. Inside was the short perennial text: happy birthday. That was all. I was ten years old. As far as I was concerned it could have been dropped in by a scatty aunt or friend of my parents. No shortage of suspects. No big deal.
I had to wait till I was sixteen for the next one. Not that I really did wait. Far from it, indeed, but still, however casually, that was the first card I particularly noticed—its mysterious presence smuggled through with declared goods. There was also the class of it. A young prince was standing outside his parents’ castle surveying the horizon beyond their kingdom, and the same birthday wish inside. Those that reached me afterwards paralleled my growing up, somehow, as I made my way out into the adult world.
Scenes of romance, children, travel and various accomplishments followed every few years.
At the far side, when the dust settled, the world had moved on and even my wife began to forget my birthday—that is when the faithful arrival of the anonymous greeting, finding me out no matter how often or where I’d relocated, took on a newfound significance.
Once I retired, these little miracles of serendipity appeared yearly, as impossibly immanent as the magician’s bonnet bunnies.
I’d like to thank that magician, the one who’s been sending me the cards, and who admits to drying up, like myself.
I start radiotherapy tomorrow, too far gone, I’m told, to operate on. If only that was an illusion! How could the card-sender know before I did? In the end, knowing doesn’t matter. The true magic springs from the well of living, and I drank my mortal fill of love, luck and satisfaction.
Looking back, whatever vanishing act I must endure now, I was blessed with the whole hat-trick.