By Madhumita Roy
My monologue is directed at You.
Because You sit on the other side of the desk with a smirk on your face, which makes You resemble my cat, Ludo, when she smiles. New research claims that animals can smile and, therefore, I believe both You and Ludo are capable of smiling.
On rare occasions your smirk evolves into a wide grin.
These occasions are as follows: when rain-forests burn; or tsunamis wreak havoc in Asian countries; or when two hundred girls are abducted and threatened with rape.
Your face is extremely annoying.
Although there is a halo around your enormously big head, I think it is an illusion you have masterfully created to cut an impressive figure for a credulous crowd. You are not God, Godhead, Godfather, Godly, God-like, or any goddess.
You survive because of cheap sentimentalism, untrue feelings, lazy thoughts, crazy dreams and soft nation-states.
You are what childless couples crave; what toothless grandmothers remember; what old men imagine as sex; and what belies all stereotypes of desire and memory.
You seek sustenance in the uncertainty of settled lives and the boredom of nomads. You are just One, yet You give the impression of multiplicity. You are fixed, yet You seem nebulous and spread-out.
You act like a beggar; like a mad sorceress lusting after the good and honest travellers; like the rogue bus-conductor demanding money from the hapless commuter not carrying change.
You are not fiction, at least not my fiction. I am bad at making up stories. If I had made You, You would not be grand, illusive, mysterious—and also phony, confused, chimeral and sad. I want to dethrone You. I assure You, You would benefit from my rebellion—You would sleep in peace.
However, You see me spilling over, non-specialized, unprofessional and ambitious. You also see me lettered; progressing meekly from the past to the present and future over thousands of pages. You see me in the side-role, which keeps me dissatisfied. You see me accidentally stepping into the role of protagonist with great hesitance and fear.
You exist. You are the author. You are the Muse. You are the dreamer. When I look into the mirror, or read a novel, or allow folks to read me, or citizens to claim me, or dogs to devour me and scare my cat, I see You.
By Tyrean Martinson
When it was his turn to speak, Dunnie hesitated. He knew what he should say. It was a simple question of whether or not he wanted to try and fit in this year at school. It was seventh grade. He had six years plus kindergarten behind him so he knew what the acceptable answers were, even to something as simple as giving his favorite color and activity so the teacher could remember his name out of the 125 students she had to deal with every day. But, something made Dunnie want to be honest this year.
“My name is Dunnie Cunningham. I like the color orange because it reminds me of sunrise, and sun on my back, and my grandma’s oatmeal cookies.”
A few boys he’d known since kindergarten snickered.
“This isn’t Dateline,” hissed Randy from across the aisle.
“Excuse me, Randy,” said the teacher in a tired voice.
Dunnie held back a small smile, though it tugged at the corner of his lips as Randy slouched in his chair.
“Your favorite activity, Dunnie?” the teacher prompted.
“Gardening,” he said. “I like to make things grow.”
This time his answer was met by an uncomfortable silence. He’d just reminded everyone of that incident in kindergarten.
But the teacher was new in town. She didn’t know about the incident, so she said, “Thank you, Dunnie. I’ll remember that when we study our unit on plant life.”
Dunnie nodded. As the teacher asked Teddy Fowler about his favorite color and activity, Dunnie thought back to kindergarten when he first discovered his gift. He still couldn’t explain it, but he’d learned to use it more carefully. He’d never covered a building with plants again, nor surrounded a classmate with brambles. He looked sideways at Randy and caught him looking back.
Randy bent over his notebook. He liked to draw comical caricatures of his classmates.
Dunnie looked at the scars on Randy’s wrists. Randy always wore long sleeves, even at football practice, but when they rode up a bit you could see the scars. Dunnie felt bad about that.
As the teacher walked over to another part of the room to talk to Wendy Grover, Randy shoved his notebook across the aisle at Dunnie.
A picture of a boy covered in thorns with the words “Do you remember this?” under it glared off the page.
When class ended, Dunnie walked into the hallway where an apple core sailed out of the air and hit the ground beside him.
Dunnie picked it up, felt its residual life and worked his gift. The core sprouted roots from the seeds inside. He held it up and looked across the hall at Teddy Fowler and Randy.
Teddy Fowler’s mouth hung open. Randy’s face went white, but he crossed the hall to Dunnie. “So, it was real what I remembered.”
“I’m sorry,” said Dunnie. He held the apple core with roots out to Randy. “Plant it in your yard.”
Randy eyed the apple core. “It’s not going to grow all over me?”
“No. I learned how to control it.”
“Cool,” Randy said. “You know I draw comics, right?”
“Yeah,” Dunnie said.
“So, I need to show you the comic I drew in kindergarten. It’s called ‘Plant-boy’.” He hesitated, then took the apple core. “He was a villain at first, and then I saw him helping his grandma in her garden, so I made him a hero.”
“Plant-boy is a terrible name.”
“I was five.”
“You could rename him.”
“We’ll talk about it. I figure you can give me some ideas.” He held up his notebook. “I’ll see you after football practice. Hold this for me until then.” He dropped the apple core with roots back into Dunnie’s hands.
Dunnie looked down at the tiny apple tree in his hands. He would have to make sure it had plenty of loving care to grow.
By Margaret Wachtler
In the early seventies I worked at the University of Chicago Library where I was the reading room receptionist.
I had a good telephone voice.
One day, a gravelly male voice on the line said, “ Hello. This is Saul Bellow. I’d like to speak to someone about my papers.”
God, Saul Bellow, Seize the Day. That was all I could think. I’d never read any of his books but he was a famous AUTHOR.
“I think you’d like to speak to Mr. Rosenthal,” I said.
“And who is Mr. Rosenthal, might I ask?”
“Um, he’s my boss, I mean, he’s Head of Special Collections.”
“And what makes you think I should talk to him? Can’t I talk to you?”
“Well, I guess so.” I wondered where this was going. “But why me?”
“Well, I like the sound of your voice.”
“And you sound like someone who could help me.”
“Gosh.” (Yes, I did use words like that way back then.)
“So, what can you do for me?” he insisted.
“I don’t really know except maybe put you through to Mr. Rosenthal. He’s in his office right now.”
“But what if I don’t want to talk to him?”
“I think, Mr. Bellow, he’s the one. I’m just the receptionist.”
“Nothing wrong with that. In fact, some of the finest women I know are receptionists.”
“No, it’s a way of complimenting you.”
I drew a breath. Was this man really talking like this to me? He didn’t know me but he was drawing me in. And I liked it.
“Why, thank you,” I said. But then I didn’t know how to continue.
“And I only compliment those who are worthy.”
“Well, you’re very kind.”
“I guess I need to get back to the business at hand. I think I’m just going to come in. Then I can talk with your Mr. Rosenthal. When’s he free?”
I didn’t even bother to look at the appointment book. “He’s here all afternoon.”
“I’ll be there in a couple of hours. Anxious to meet you, Miss … ?”
“Oh, Miss Lloyd. Margaret Lloyd. Me, too. I mean it will be nice to meet you, too.”
Saul Bellow entered the reading room with great strides. He had a satchel under his arm and a long overcoat. His presence took up a huge space. There was an anticipatory smile on his craggy face.
“Is Miss Lloyd here? I’ve come to see Mr. Rosenthal.”
“I’m Miss Lloyd.”
“Oh.” Saul Bellows’ face fell. He shook his head. “Really?”
“Really.” I nodded in agreement. I knew I’d disappoint him. My voice didn’t match me.
“May I see Mr. Rosenthal?
“Yes, of course.”
By Mark Pearce
Great rippling bands of heat distortion shimmer above the cobbles as our dear electric friend the sun shines razorblades through the sweat shine of my skin and it was only 9.45 am! “que wow, another day in paradise,” the rhythmic panting from Daisy dog alongside me confirmed her agreement with my unspoken “farkin ell it’s ot” and another day unfolds, get everything done before 11:00 am, hide from the heat, move again near sunset. Key word ‘rhythm,’ 3 grey rainy days 3 hot sunny steamy days repeat for a while. Each day a blend of survival and sweet contacts – reiki sessions and meditations and secret chanting groups and exercise groups all small groups of 3 here 4 there, all broke and trading skills and smiles, dotted around in bundles of cliques, keeping the faith raising vibrations hither and thither and global as well, it must be, I reckon. So life here’s wonderfully rich in experience – my natural abhorrence of work means I pinball between highs and lows, ricochet existence providing contrasts a go-go to a backdrop of hot dusty humid chicken dog parrot bug noise the rhythmic unending of sayulita life.
Three Months Free with Gravity
By Renoir Gaither
Substitute teaching an eighth grade English class is like speed dating a pail of nails: One charges through the minefield of discussing the number of likes on an ex’s Facebook page while the other compresses conspiracy theories about Beyoncé and the Illuminati into nine syllables. Today, the class and I bemoan the ubiquity of passive voice—or rather, I alone suffer the slings and arrows of outrage.
“Passive voice was raised on buttered grits,” I haw, hoping a simple, self-deprecating anthropomorphism gains traction.
Amber, a blond boredom magnet in the back row takes the bait: “Real funny, Mr. Substitute. Ever thought about a career as a late night talk show host?”
Ignoring her, I fumigate one question with another: “Ever call a baseball game in passive voice?”
A freckle-faced seraph named Gabe chimes, “Curveball is dealt to home plate! Pitch is swung on by Derek Jeter! A pall is cast over the entire field at Fenway Park!”
“Wonderful,” I add. “I bet the announcer was a Red Sox fan.”
Amber, the Meryl Streep of sarcasm, lets go a thundering “Aww, who gives a hoot!” then resumes flogging her lemon chew.
“Who?” I interject with pantomimed vim, “Why, no less than folk heroes and neo-Dadaists. People like Lady Gaga, the Kardashian sisters, Godzilla. OK, nix the reptile. Imagine them tweeting away their lives in passive voice.” I feel as young as Keats when he wrote his letters and mischievous as Ignatz hurling a brick at Krazy Kat.
“Advertisers are the star players in this game,” I continue. “Ad folks hate passive voice. Using it kills any and all sense of urgency. Remember, they want to sell you things. And sell you things as soon as possible.” I loosen my collar, pad over to a corner of the room in my best hawker imitation, and pronounce: “Better to boast, ‘This Maserati Granturismo speaks wonders in terms of style and comfort!’ than to dully mumble, ‘This car was engineered for style and comfort.’ Speaking like advertising executives brings you that much closer to tooling around in a Maserati.”
“Yeah—and maybe a sign on the moon reads GET THREE MONTHS FREE WITH GRAVITY,” Amber enunciates like Chris Paul dribbles a basketball: with awesomely sick handles.
I look down at my shoes where half a heel used to be, and then crane up. “Hmm, about that gravity . . . do they take checks?”
By Maurice Cashell
From his waiting room I watched Robert move between a dozen monitors, barking out instructions to designers in Provo and programmers in Bengaluru.
Around the walls digital clocks, in luminous green, hurtled down to zero. His entire team was focused on the crisis at Secular, the U.S. chain whose 2,000 outlets serve 15 million customers a week. The stores sell a selection of arts, crafts, and seasonal merchandise for hobbyists and DIY home decorators.
In 2012, when Secular’s debit card terminals in five states had been compromised Robert’s IT company won a multi-million dollar contract to upgrade the system. He had completed the project on time, had tested it a dozen times, a hundred times.
Starting from the front-end cash register its suite of applications managed every aspect of Secular’s business with complete security. Founder Jim Ryan liked to boast that Robert’s new system was as good as the Pentagon’s. And then, just before it went online, a mere three hours before the first stores on the East Coast opened, the system crashed.
The Secular board was assembled in the War Room, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Jim Ryan gave Robert two hours to sort out the mess; if not, the stores would not open, the stock would tank and so would Robert’s heavily mortgaged company.
Before the opening of the NYSE a broker tweeted about a “Secular problem” and wondered if his short-term ‘Buy’ rating would survive the day. The temperature rose in the War Room but Jim Ryan’s response was characteristic: ‘We gave the kid two hours. He can do it.’
And Robert did. It wasn’t a virus; it wasn’t a hacker. It was a simple human error. Something that can be identified and fixed if one is calm, well ordered and patient.
He looked across the room at me, winked, thumbs up, and made signs of forking food into his mouth.
We went to a Basque restaurant on San Sebastian’s Paseo Muelle. Right on the water’s edge, where the trawlers tie up. The far end, away from the tourists. He placed his iPhone on the table and observed the family rule: no business talk while eating.
We spoke to Mikel, the chef who plays with Robert on the veterans’ football team, took his advice on which fish to choose and ordered carefully. He suggested a wine from one of the oldest of the Navarra bodegas. Oaky, rich and smoky, the exuberant child of a warm climate, when chilled it set the scene for a perfect meal to mark a victory over human error.
Robert decided to record the occasion on his iPhone camera. To take in the restaurant’s green canopy (“this is the only green that I’m pleased to see today”) he took a step back. He didn’t see the hawser lying on the quayside, tripped, then tried to steady himself and to grab the falling phone. I saw his face as he tumbled backwards over the edge. He looked calm, had his ‘I can sort this out’ expression as he looked straight into my eyes.
With a sickening crunch his head banged off the gunwale of the boat ten feet below and I knew that his life and mine were changed forever.
By Doreen Duffy
As I stared through the windscreen at the black shining road getting sucked beneath the fast moving car, the hedgerows rushing alongside in their applause, I wasn’t sure if I was right to have taken this lift.
The driver was animated, chatting incessantly.
I allowed my mind to switch off, saying “mmm” and “oh really”. I stared out the window where rain used the glass as a runway to speed down and rest a moment in the rubber seal at the bottom.
I’d been hitching for over two hours. Nobody wanted to give lifts these days. My hands were freezing from holding the cardboard sign and water was pouring off my rain jacket and rucksack. It was great to be in the warmth of the car.
Rain was coming in sheets and the wipers were unable to cope. I thought he should take it slower and said as much.
He laughed. “You can put yourself back on the road with your sign.”
I reached for my rucksack and pulled out my knife. Throwing my entire body weight behind it, I lunged in and out of his side. When he was still, I grabbed my knife and climbed out of the car. I went under the trees and cleaned my face and hands as best I could.
A driver stopped and offered me a lift. She was a nice woman all motherly, tutting about what a bad evening it was to be hitching a lift. I snuggled down in the passenger seat, weary.
She offered me one of her sweets.
The sort of sweets I hate.
By Susan Condon
Someone is watching.
Johnny’s eyes skim the room, finally settling in the corner. It appears darker there; black as ink. Yet he is unable to decipher a shape as his hands feel for the tangled sheet, pulling it over their naked bodies. It is cold and his chest feels as if icy fingers are squeezing his heart. He shudders.
Jennifer? Jemima? Shit! He can’t even remember her name.
Evidence of their passion is strewn around the bedroom; his designer shirt and faded jeans, one leg inside out; her flimsy dress and black lace thong. The alcohol, along with his medication, has heightened some of his senses while dulling others. Unable to keep their hands from caressing, their tongues from dancing, they’d spent hours exploring each other.
As he wakes up, their bodies are still entwined.
It’s the voice.
That raspy, scratchy voice; the way it says his name.
At first he convinces himself that he imagined it, holding his breath, unable to open his eyes. Then he hears the soft rustle of cloth and that voice again; closer this time.
“Johnnnnny. I found you . . .”
He breathes out slowly, as if he is swimming underwater, expelling air bubbles. But his next breath makes him gag; now he’s drowning.
The black eyes of the ventriloquist dummy are boring into him.
“It’s time, Johnnnnny.”
Snared; like a rabbit in a trap.
He nods, lifts the pillow and places it over her head, pressing firmly.
Murder for Dummies.
By Phyl Herbert
My favourite way of going in is through the keyhole of the big hall-door. It’s like waiting in the wings before making a stage entrance. The only difference is that when I enter the stage of the house nobody sees me, not a soul. I do know I’m being a little dramatic about the keyhole entrance but the truth is I can enter whatever way I like, even through the thickest gable wall.
Day and night are all the same to me since you might say I’ve never really seen the light of day. It had been in the depths of darkness that I made my entry to this place, these lands where peacocks strut the grounds and white cats creep behind you and dogs whelp for attention. That cocky peacock seems to be forever patrolling that little patch of ground outside the hall-door. Today my mission will be fulfilled. Mr. Peacock had better play his part.
Let’s talk about playing—I never got a chance to play. Time as I said means nothing to me. I’ve watched the children of the house play in the fields with their kites and balls and sticks. I’ve heard them laugh and cry and all of a sudden they’ve stopped playing and become grown men and women. Then the whole cycle starts over again, more children, more playing, more and more. Where do I fit into this cycle of life, you may ask? Nowhere, that’s where. My place is rooted in the realm of death. But to die means that you have lived at some stage, at some minute of time. A life has to have registered some tick on the clock of life. My life was hardly more than a tick.
There was a storm that night and I knew that the place where I had slumbered was being disturbed. My warm cosy liquidy place had burst wide open and I’d catapulted onto a cold bed of bloodied rags. Her screams had drowned out my cries. Of course I couldn’t see her. Newborn babies can’t see but I had felt her, I’d felt her hands around my neck and my first breath of life had been extinguished, so that is why, when I say I’ve never really seen the light of day as a body made flesh I really mean it. I’d been flesh for an instant and then bones that had been hidden in the cracks of the outhouses far away from the eyes of the big house. My disappearance had caused a stir among the local fraternity and then farther afield to the big cities. Newspaper people and television people all looking for a juicy story had haunted the place. I didn’t even have a name but the young girl who gave birth to me did, the young girl who had given life and then taken it from me had a name but I can’t say it. I can’t tell you now but what I can do is —well, let’s see how it goes.
Mr. Peacock is on door duty again. I can’t make up my mind whether to pinch his tail or thump his head so I decide to do both. I want him to sing on his highest note and dance up a storm. I take my time before putting my plan into action. This time I want the front door to open and I want to take my lawful place inside the house. I pinch the peacock’s tail and thump his head and he twitches and prances and I do it again and again and the cry gets higher and the feathers flutter and the door opens.
In the kitchen a group of men are sitting around the table, no one is talking, the clock is ticking. There is a loud scream. The sighs of a woman in pain. I’m now in her bedroom. The baby is letting out a cry and I know that cry. It is mine and I’m made flesh again.
The Relief of Collon*
By Andy Jones
Two Bedford army trucks were parked at the side of the country road, their dipped headlights throwing shadows in the growing darkness. The men dismounted awkwardly, exhibiting the effects of their earlier exertions. The more experienced took their time, professionally scrutinising the chosen location with bloodshot eyes. Pain was evident on all their faces, an ache that would not ease until they completed the task that faced them. They had taken so much and were past caring.
Hurriedly taking position, they nudged each other into line. All was silent apart from the muttered entreaties of those whose turn would come. Their manhood had been severely tested over the past hours and would be again before this was over. The young officer in command paled. It was the first time she had witnessed anything like this. She tried to speak, but no words issued from her parched mouth. She was suffering too, having willingly joined in the earlier activities, but her humanity meant she could not take part in the unspeakable act her men were about to commit. She looked along the line and bit her lip, averting her eyes.
Suddenly, without a word of command, tracer-like amber streams erupted from the ranks, twinkling in the dull glow of the lorry lights.
Visiting the brewery in Dundalk was undoubtedly the high point of annual training. The lavish consumption of export grade Harp Lager always ended with the same predictable result on the way home. They hadn’t taught her this in Cadet College.
*Collon is a village north of Slane in County Meath, Ireland, halfway back to the barracks.
By John Givens
I thought I might be happier if I had a cat. My cat would sit on my lap while I was reading and soothe me with its purring. Or not on my lap since I’d have a book there so beside me, rather, but leaning against me with its little head on my thigh and perhaps one paw placed there affectionately and purring. I would give my cat a name and when I said it, my cat would look up at me inquiringly so that if anyone happened to be visiting, they would be impressed by how clever my cat was although if anyone was there in my happy home, then the cat would in a sense become redundant since its primary purpose was to eliminate or at least minimize the loneliness that sometimes impeded my decision-making skills and made it hard to get out of bed. My plan for obtaining a cat was straightforward. I would go to the animal shelter with its many cats waiting eagerly in their cages and choose one. The cat’s age would be a prime consideration. Kittens are cute but tend to get underfoot and when stepped on leave a mess. Older cats are often set in their ways and express dissatisfaction by shitting in the middle of your bed. Gender is a factor, too, although surgical neutering can eliminate the most undesirable traits evidenced by the so-called “whole” cat. Disposition and an attractive appearance are also considerations. One should avoid sullen cats, for example. Disfigured cats, cats missing limbs, or cats with skin diseases should also be avoided. No sooner had I established these principles for selecting my cat than it occurred to me there was another variable. “Rescue” cats have a shelf-life, so to speak, and once a certain amount of time has elapsed – a “grace period,” if you will – what began as a “rescue” becomes inoperable, and the cat is terminated, if that’s the term for it, which in all likelihood it isn’t since children are often involved in the cat-selection process and the shelter staff would want to employ a gentler euphemism. I resolved therefore to expand my criteria of age, gender, personality and relative comeliness by adding a fifth: imminence of death. To this end, I decided I would instruct the shelter to restrict the selection of cats they offered me to those which were least likely to be adopted before the “grace period” had been exhausted, thereby ensuring that by making my choice within the parameters of this constraint, at least one “at risk” cat would be preserved. I was pleased with this solution and about to leave for the animal shelter when the possibility of unintended consequences occurred to me—always a curse for the thoughtful. What if I selected a cat that while facing near-term termination had slightly more “wiggle room” than another, equally deserving cat that I had overlooked through no fault of its own so that by failing to pause at this cat’s cage, I was thereby condemning what would have been an otherwise satisfactory animal companion to an undeserved death. I decided I would have to refine my cat-selection method further by asking the staff at the shelter to rank the “at risk” cats in order of inverse proposed longevity so that I might choose the cat most in need of my happy home, by which I meant the cat closest to its date of termination (or whatever the term is for lifting a cat out of its cage, carrying it down to the basement, and sticking it head-first into the death-chamber) although it also occurred to me that while my plan might very well preserve the cat most “at risk,” it would ipso-facto condemn the second-most vulnerable cat to its horrible fate. This stopped me. It seemed to ensure that my ostensibly good deed would lead to the termination of an otherwise perfectly viable cat due to my “well-meant” organizing principle. Shouldn’t I therefore reach down more deeply into the category of “at risk” cats on offer and perhaps open my happy home to the second-most vulnerable cat too? Except taking both the most vulnerable cat and second-most vulnerable cat would instantly promote to the top of the “kill list” a cat that while “at risk” might still have liked its chances, at least until I came swaggering through the door with all my preferences and prejudices. What to do? Take him too? And the fourth-most vulnerable cat, and the fifth? Take the entire supply of pre-terminable cats? But wouldn’t that introduce the new problem of selecting which of my many cats ended up leaning against my thigh and purring? And what about the logistical “nightmare” of organizing my inventory of cats? All of them wandering around and getting into things, stealing food and scratching the furniture, fighting and fucking and shitting all over the place. The smell of it alone would keep putative visitors out of my happy home. And what if I dropped dead of a heart attack from the strain of trying to manage all those cats? And thereby became a meal for them? Did I really want to leave as the legacy of my search for happiness the kind of comically grotesque story enjoyed by tabloid-readers? It was with a heavy heart that I set off for the animal shelter, dreading what I would find there.
PUT THE KETTLE ON
By Phyl Herbert
He phoned me that Tuesday. It was always to ask me for the loan of my car. I knew there was something up when he said, ‘Put the kettle on. I’m coming up for a cup of coffee.’ I had this feeling. It wasn’t a good feeling. When I answered the door he was carrying a sack of firewood. The snow was thick on the steps to my apartment. Now when I look back at that moment I have to laugh because I knew he wouldn’t need firewood where he was going. Of course, then I didn’t know.
I knew exactly how he liked his coffee, two sugars, just a drop of milk. After living with someone for twenty years you get to know things like that. Another thing I knew about him was that he didn’t like chatting. In the years of our life together if ever I had started to tell him something, he’d look at his watch and say, ‘Is this going to take long?’ We never chatted. I learned to say nothing. Can’t even remember when we parted company.
‘Remember that form you got for me to have my pension paid into the bank?’
‘Yes,’ I said. He had only just become a recipient of the pension.
‘Well, I lost it.’
‘No problem.’ I said. ‘I’ll ring them up and get another one.’
‘There’s nothing keeping me in this country.’
I looked at him and knew something else was coming. ‘I suppose not,’ I said.
‘Do you think if I emigrated from here they’d pay my pension in another country?’
I knew he had recently made a few trips to Thailand with a friend for dental treatment.
‘Where are you thinking of going?’
‘Back to Thailand.’
The penny dropped, I’m a bit slow like that.
‘Have you got a woman there?’ I held my breath.
‘Yes,’ he said. I felt a lump jump into my throat and swallowed it.
‘I’m happy for you.’
‘I met her when I was over getting my teeth done. She works in a bar.’
He didn’t even look at me. He kept stirring his coffee. I felt like telling him to stop.
‘She’s a bit old for that type of work,’ he said matter of factly.
‘What age is she?’ I had to ask.
‘Thirty-eight,’ he said. ‘She has a daughter of eighteen.’
He looked at me then as if I were his mother. ‘She’s been ringing me since I’ve got back.’
‘Can she speak English?’
‘She’s enough to make herself understood. The roof of her house fell in and I had to send her money to fix it.’
Then he floored me altogether.
‘Will you come over for our wedding in September? I want you to give me away.
By Rebecca Bartlett
Words: broken, crooked, transparent, hang between them, as if suspended in some virtual, weightless world. Letters fall away in a confusion of sounds yet to be articulated, in anticipation of things needing to be said but yet unspoken.
Tea is poured. The Mother’s blue-veined hands enfold the precious familiar china, ornamental willow figures escaping between her fingers to a hiding place somewhere in the palm of her hand. The brown warmth presses against her daydream, the reality of too much time passing and things needing to be said but yet unspoken.
Her only daughter, the second of four children, was always last in the pecking order, because it was the natural order of things in Mother’s life that, quite simply, sons came first. Now, her privacy invaded by medical practice and invasive procedures; by promises of a recovery which in her slackening blood flow and her damaged heart she suspects will not work; it is her daughter she wants.
Daughter will not compromise, will not urge her to sentimentalities she does not want to give; will protect her dignity and her right to speak for what she wants.
And yet, and yet: things needing to be said are still unspoken.
Across the room Mother and Daughter make the same silent pilgrimage back to the rugged purpled valley of the Maam River, to that car journey when, because Mother was despairing, a story was told and, Daughter has always known, immediately regretted. She remembers Mother’s anguish, her profile taut with pain.
Mother remembers the uncharacteristic reaching. Daughter’s hand holding hers: mute resolve and undertaking in that touch.
Years of prayer have strengthened her own fortitude but what of the after-time, when she is gone, will the burden of secrecy be too much?
And Sons must not know.
Sunlight slides into the room. Daughter sees the question worrying Mother’s face, the words hanging between them. This unspoken, crystallized by time, lies deep in the strata of both their lives.
She moves to take Mother’s empty cup and as Mother’s thoughts are lifted back into the room and her eyes to Daughter’s face, Daughter very gently touches her own closed lips with the tip of her forefinger: a nanosecond of wordless communication. Mother’s eyes close briefly and from her own lips a sigh in acknowledgement of this digital testimony to keep the past hidden.
Tenacity, courage, loyalty: the genetic code of these women’s shared DNA.
Sons visit, wary now of something different in the house; a female blood tie, like a tribal bond, fierce, protective, yielding nothing of that which is still unspoken but which Mother and Daughter knowingly share. Sons converse, engage Mother, yet it is Daughter who is drawn closer in through the rituals of an ending both women intuit. Like a menstrual cycle between fecund females the pulse of one quickens or slows to the pulse of the other and those other words, superfluous now, dissolve, disperse.
The month is warm, a daily abundance of sweet pea spills from a crystal bowl and punctuates the customary colours of a room long lived in. Family gather, nervous of the ending they also now see coming.
The gentle adagio of Mother’s death is played out in days.
When it is over and the ritual of funeral past, Sons and Daughter sit around Mother’s kitchen table. Words: charged, cumbersome, pendulous hang between them.
‘You were with her so much in these last weeks.’
‘It was you she wanted.’
‘So … when you talked … did she … did she tell you anything we should know?’
By Stephen Rea
Christopher Burroughs had been looking forward to the reunion that he had attended every five years without fail since he left school. This winter’s event was to be the fourth get-together. Despite being very busy he had etched it firmly in his head and replied confirming his attendance. At midnight he was acknowledged as being first on the list.
Eleven months passed. When Christopher arrived, it was in full swing and as he circulated amongst all those who were there, he listened intently as Face-bookers relayed that the economic crash had not been kind to some renowned tiger climbers from their year. Several were now working in Canada.
In an alcove round the corner from the bar, an out of sight group were mentioning him. Elmore was upbeat and positive. ‘Yeah, he sold it for close to twenty million. Anyone know what he did with it?”
Vince held out his phone. “That’s where he put it.”
“The full twenty million?”
“And another hundred million from the banks.”
Christopher needed to collect his thoughts and went outside into the cold air punctuated by the smoke of cigarettes, returning just as the organiser was saying his few words about the night that was in it. Two of the group that had been discussing him were looking at another picture on a Smartphone. It showed half-built houses with no roofs, windows, doors or people.
The organizer raised his glass. “To a sad summer and a fallen friend … to Christopher.”
The group joined in as one: “To Christopher.”
Outside again there was lingering doorway smoke for Christopher to pass through as he made his way back into the nearby housing estate that had swallowed him up. It still had half-built houses with no roofs, windows, doors or people.
By Christine Rains
“Display your navel.”
There was no please or thank you as I lifted the bottom of my shirt. A gentle warmth exuded from the scanner as the guard pressed it to my abdomen. I tried not to think about how many other bellies it had touched, but my stomach roiled nonetheless. I was one of the Soulfull. I could not disgrace myself by cringing or throwing up in public.
Three seconds later, the device beeped and flashed green. The guard waved me on, and I stepped forward a few feet to wait for my friend behind me. Jetta wore a blue half-top and sported a swirly tattoo celebrating her navel. Winking at me as the scanner beeped, she had a skip in her step as the guard granted her entry into the Church.
“Easy peasy.” Jetta’s smirk melted into an expression of awe as we entered the immense nave. Weaving arches linked in sacred knots and golden angels spread their wings above us. Not one threw a bolt of lightning nor swept down to drag us away.
“I understand why you love to come here now.” She whispered near my ear. Not too close. Touching was forbidden.
A priest walked by. He smiled and nodded. He knew me. We had seen each other hundreds of times. He’d never seen Jetta, but he had the same smile for her. It was as if he couldn’t tell the difference.
I trembled and my insides clenched. I wanted to scream out the truth, but I didn’t dare. I’d wanted to know as much as Jetta.
“Why would they keep us from here? I feel closer to God just being in here.” Jetta sat in a pew on the left side. One of her hands went to her abdomen, fingering her navel. “We were made to be just like you. To do, to think, just like you. Look at this place. There’d be peace if they let us in.”
The Soulless were forbidden to enter holy places. Born neither of mother nor father, we were taught they were empty vessels. Jetta had always denied it, complaining she had more life than me. There were times I agreed with her. I wanted to weep.
Rebel Soulless fought against the Church and government, demanding equal rights. They’d come so far already. The Church still refused them though, and pleaded with the corporations to stop creating the Soulless. But they weren’t going to quit making products that made them so much money. Soon the Soulless would outnumber the Soulfull and what then?
“It’s so beautiful.” Jetta ran her fingers along the smooth wood of the bench in front of us. She stood and approached the altar. I held my breath, but nothing happened. She went down to her knees and rested her hands on her belly. Laughing, she tossed her head back and wiped at her eyes.
A few people glanced her way, but no one said anything. The ways of God were mysterious, and she only appeared to be worshiping. Not appeared. No matter that she was created in a vial, she still believed in God. My God.
Should I be angry? Or happy? I couldn’t feel anything either way. My knuckles were white with how I clasped my hands together. The incense burned as I inhaled, and my heart pounded in my chest.
I forced myself up and joined Jetta. My legs shook and gave way. No one paid attention as I flopped onto the floor. The painful jolt blurred my vision for a few seconds, but I tilted my head back to focus upon one of the great angels. So wise and lovely and still.
“One small scar and we’re equal in the eyes of God.” She beamed at me. Then she turned her eyes up and they glazed over with wonder.
Whomever gave Jetta her navel had done an excellent job. It healed perfectly and looked like a naturally cute belly button. She’d convinced me to touch it to make sure it felt real. Even though it did, I was certain it couldn’t fool the Church. God saw everything.
Yet she was right. One little scar had fooled them all, and we were on our knees together in the most sacred of places. Was she really Soulless after all?
Tears streamed down my cheeks. Not for the hope that Jetta had a soul, but for the fear that she did.
And what of me? I was hollow. Everything I ever believed was wrong.
By Dawn Lowe
When I want to hide, I visit the grubby muffin shop on the top floor of the mall.
The crone behind the counter is a hundred years old. She wears a chef’s hat, frilly apron, support hose and black slippers, scuttling behind her baked goods like a spider checking its web.
Muffins should be soft, but hers are hard and crusty. I buy one anyway—the price of sanctuary—toffee apple, with the paper cup baked into its flesh.
I sit overlooking the food court two floors down, where he is seated at a round table with his knights. I recognize the top of his head. A hard muffin, hurled from this height, could do some damage there.
A spider is walking a tightrope between my table and the next. The counter crone creeps round the corner to wipe empty tables with a rag.
I look down and see the top of a blonde head next to his. The knights shift their chairs so she can sit beside him. I wish for for a crossbow or boiling oil: If wishes were weapons, perfidy would die.
The paper exoskeleton of a muffin lies stripped before me; my nails are caked with goo.
“Are you done?” the crone asks. She’s standing between my table and the next, hands on hips, rag slapped down like a gauntlet.
The spider, her lifeline broken, has grown to epic proportions and devours the muffin lady’s head.