First Snow by John Lysaght

John Lysaght is a writer of fiction and poetry from Long Island, New York. John began his formal writing while attending the University of Scranton, graduating with a BA in English and Latin in 1968. Mr. Lysaght has had a rich work history as a teacher, counselor for at risk youth, therapist, social worker and probation officer. His work has appeared in Esprit, Poets’ West, Avocet, The Greenwich Village Literary Review, Nomad’s Choir, Calliope’s Corner, and October Hill.

 


 

First Snow

Autumnal caravan
Palette of browns
Draped with fleece, with flannel
Of spiced cider and maple syrup
Haystack and harvest,
Turns and fades
Into memory.

Aloft,
Vanilla pregnant puffs
Birth virgin downy hexagonals
Dressed in white lace–
Angel-crafted from above.
Alabaster-jeweled
Geometric masterpieces
Flutter as they parachute
Downward to join their brethren,
Snow man antecessors
Decorating the landscape face below.

Solitary galosh imprints
Mark where I’ve been
And question where next to go.
With upturned face
And supplicant palms
I catch in an instant
Transmutant wonders
Returning to origin
Replicating the continuum
Of renewal.


John can be reached via email.

St. Andrews by Katharine Macfarlane

Katharine Macfarlane’s lyrical poetry is rooted in the history and landscape of Scotland. Katharine has recently performed with Flint & Pitch and Sonnet Youth and hosted her first solo show, Home Words, at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2016. Her work has appeared in Untitled, The Grind and The Ogilvie and has been translated into German as a feature piece in the novel Die Rückkehr der Wale by Isabel Morland. 


St. Andrews

I held on to relics;
An arm turned to bone by my heart,
Pearls at my throat
The virtue of St Margaret
And scallop shells, pressed to each palm:
Imprint stronger than divination
Replacing head, heart, life, fate.

Yet, when I see you on the road
I think that maybe
You have always been in my heart,
Even before it was beating.

The weight of the ancestors is at your back,
Their breath warm on my cheek.
I lay down arms
And smiles pour from my eyes.


Katharine can be reached via her Facebook page, Home Words. More of her poems are accessible here.

The Niskala by Lexie Angelo

Lexie Angelo is a Canadian writer and poet. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in Communications from Royal Roads University and completed a literary residency at The Banff Centre. She moved to Edinburgh to pursue her postgraduate degree in Creative Writing and is currently working on her debut novel.

 


 

The Niskala

 

I see it clearly now. I didn’t before. Stringy, matted black hair. Captain Willow. She snuck up on me. Ooooh I hate her eyes. I want to gouge them out with a spoon. Suck on the lenses and feel the tension of each orb explode between my teeth. I want her dead, dead, and dead again.

I mustn’t lose myself. I am a stowaway. Yes, that’s it. If I’m found, I’ll be dead before I see my Niskala again. I am sick for her. I would rather die at the bottom of the sea tethered to her weathered planks than live a thousand years without her. She knows I’m near. We are connected by blood and vein and sinew. I can taste this familiar sea. The weather is a witch’s brew of squid and rotten snails. The clouds are so thick I could eat them. But I want to eat those wicked beady eyes instead.

My crew is dead. I watched their limbs fall into heavy waves. No, you fool, they are putting up a good fight. Guns crack. Smoke curls into the mist.

“Kill as many as you can, Snake!”

“Orda, it’s twenty souls or the locker for you!”

Harhahrhar!

“Save Captain Willow for me. I’ll slice off that fine head of hers. Her stringy black hair will make a fine wig for Pug.”

“You hear that Pug?”

Harhar!

“You’ll get new eyebrows from the hair I’ll be pulling out of my teeth.”

We’ll be at port soon, Niskala. Willow hung from the gibbet. A thousand more kegs of gunpowder, I’ll order. And haul more treasure from the sea. Curse you, Willow! My knife, if I had it, would be plunged ten inches through your back. The first snap of your spine will be the call to dinner. The second snap, the call for wine!

Someone is coming. They say I was captured. Lies! I am aboard a vessel now. I’m hidden under cotton, wheat and iron ore. Choking down rats, and urine and sea. I lost the Gunsway, the Merchant, and the Eastern Revenge. But I won’t lose you, Niskala. She snuck up on me. I thought she was the Greynest. The flags were green. Gannet shouted. “A Clipper! Three masts, a square rig, and forty gunners.” The wind turned easterly when the flags went black. I’ll eat your heart, Gannet. I’ll eat your heart for losing Niskala.


Lexie can be contacted at www.millionsofpages.com.

Festina Lente by Julie Barker

Julie Barker lived and worked in South Africa as a scriptwriter and story producer for television. In 2015, she completed an MA in Creative Writing for which she wrote a novel called Other People’s Countries. From 2013 to 2016 she worked in the TV Drama department for BBC Scotland as a Story Editor, and worked on River City. She produced a short film, The Hide, which won Best Drama at the 2017 Women over Fifty Film Festival in Brighton. She is currently working on a series of memoir pieces; Festina Lente is one of those extracts.

 


 

Festina Lente

 

Dear Archibald Knox,

In 1903, sixty-three years before I was born, you made a clock. It is silver, with a round face. Instead of numbers there are letters enamelled in blues and greens with the Latin phrase, Festina Lente, which translates into Make Haste Slowly, or the more common phrase More Haste, Less Speed. The hands have red enamelled hearts at their ends, and the face rests on a rectangular column. The column has art nouveau flowers engraved on it, which remind me of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. If you look at the clock from any angle, the flowers appear to move because of how their shape was sculpted on the reflective surface.

Somewhere in my distant and forgotten past, a set of parents, or even grandparents went to Liberty’s of London to buy a present. I suspect it was for a wedding, but I will never know.

On a South African winter’s evening when I was about seven years old, I became aware of an unusual silence while sprawled in front of my grandfather’s fireplace. As if a devoted heartbeat had ceased, and all that was left was a hollow absence, devoid of sound. I looked up at the mantelpiece and noticed that the small silver clock had stopped. My grandfather showed me how to hold it. The clock stood upright on my lap, cold but not too heavy. He gave me the key and taught me to wind it so that I would not overextend the mechanism.

My grandfather was a man who took excellent care of his possessions, and was concerned with–some may say obsessed by–the contents of his will. He explained that, as the firstborn grandchild, I was entitled to inherit his large mahogany grandfather clock and the family bible. However, because I was a girl, this could not happen. Both items needed to be carried down the male line. He was a colonial man who had old-fashioned notions of gender. He was deeply apologetic. He assured me that one day I would receive the silver clock instead, as it was more suitable for a girl.

I’m sorry, Archibald, but at that point clocks–large or small–did not impress me.

When my grandfather died, he kept his word. By this time I had grown to love old things. I placed the clock on my mantelpiece and continued to wind it up when needed. It became a stationary compass of sorts, a link to the few quietly secure moments of a tumultuous childhood while pointing to a future ripe with hope. I breastfed my first child staring at it, numb with lack of sleep. It starred in a short film once. Occasionally people would admire it–not many though; it was humbly unobtrusive. It moved with us from house to house, always occupying a mantelpiece, and sometimes became the object of conversation.

I moved to Glasgow in 2013. After three months, a massive house pack, a content purge and transportation of the cherished family cat, my husband and children arrived with the clock in their hand luggage. We began our new life.

In May of 2016, I encountered an adaptation of William Morris’s Utopian novel, News From Nowhere, published in 1891, in which a character from the present visits the future. You have probably read this book more than once; in fact, you could have been the inspiration for the central character, William Guest, who wakes up one morning to a transformed London. Although it is clearly in the future, the thrumming pulse of that huge city has been transformed into a lush and rural landscape. People don’t work, there is no such thing as money, and the beauty of art and craft is everywhere. In this Utopia the central premise is the celebration of beauty; in limited possessions, natural surroundings, and flexible emotional attachments. It is a world where humanity is living the highest ideal of itself. In the end, William learns that this life needs to be fought and won in his present reality. So he returns to his old life to do just that.

Later in 2016, I lost my job. It was a devastating blow as I was the primary earner in my family at the time. I spent three months applying for every job imaginable, probably close to a hundred. I received very little response and five interviews. With each interview my confidence faltered. I signed on for benefits. Fraught with anxiety, diminishing savings and escalating credit card debt, I took to walking in forests and meditating while trying to find a way to earn a living. On one particularly dark day I got lost and lay down, spent with fear. It occurred to me that my usefulness to my family and the world had come to an end. When the damp earth seeped into my back I realised I had some power left, namely the ability to damage my children for the rest of their lives. I got up and kept walking. Not all powers are wanted. The ones I needed, like self-respect and courage, I would have to fight for and grow.

I came home to an empty house. I found a letter from the Department of Work and Pensions arranging a meeting to discuss my benefits. I sank into the sofa and through the burning blur of tears stared at your clock, gracefully adorning a Glaswegian mantelpiece.

The following week I polished and wrapped it carefully in a cloth bag. Our lack of money was critical. I had reluctantly decided to get the clock evaluated. I went to my first appointment of the day, a meeting with the Department of Work and Pensions. A cadaverous young man was hunched over a keyboard with missing letters. After an unsubtle interrogation, he accused me of benefit fraud. I had delayed in declaring my husband’s recently acquired six month contract because he wasn’t earning enough to cover our bills. The young man told me I would no longer qualify for benefits, and I would have reimburse the total sum I had been paid. His delight at my misfortune was contaminating; I too began to believe that I deserved poverty and would never know anything else again.

I crept out of the job centre and drove to the auction house. A tired nicotine smelling man watched as I hauled out my clock. His demeanour changed when he examined the markings on the underside. It was quite possibly the most animated he had been that year, judging by the thin and arched eyebrow of his associate. I looked at your clock on the stained tablecloth and realised it deserved better.

I learnt that the clock was designed by you, Archibald, a prominent influence in the Arts and Crafts movement, and one of the most far-reaching design movements of modern times. It began around 1880, and grew from a concern about Industrialisation. Not only did it break down divisions between architects, and craftsmen, it believed that design owed its inspiration to nature and real materials. That every day things should be made with love and celebrate beauty. It worked to change the dehumanising effect of Industrialisation and also strove for equality. For the first time, women were embraced as architects and artisans.

I sent photographs to a London auction house and allowed them to process the clock for auction. Six months later the hammer settled on a substantial amount of money, enough to dig my family out a bottomless hole of debt and start again. The first time I’d ever heard your name I was raw from the wounds of my own failures. Your clock had been an enduring companion, its silvery reflection a landscape of my changing life. Finally, at just the right time it could also become my saviour. These are the things dreams are made of; this is what the presence of the divine means.

I imagined you, a solitary child roaming the Isle of Man, your artistic mind absorbing those intricately ancient Celtic Crosses. And in your design heyday for Liberty’s, those same eternally intertwined patterns pouring out like a primeval inspiration into molten silver. How the designs echoed the seemingly fluid permanence of a precious metal. I wondered at you working in the alien detention centre on the Isle of Man during the war, after such a successful career.

Then I visualised you after that, a bearded and self-effacing man with a pipe clenched between your teeth as you brushed watercolour on paper. Until you were exhausted, and would sit back to view your roughly hewn strokes, which became the ruggedness of an old Elm tree or an island coastline. Your paintings were also a spontaneous coupling of nature and design. I read that your grave’s inscription says: ‘Here lies Archibald Knox, humble servant of God in the ministry of the beautiful.’ I felt you reaching towards me through the grace and splendour of your clock and I heard you breathe: ‘beauty changes lives.’

Liberty’s never acknowledged the designs in your lifetime. Did you realise that your work would become so valuable? Festina Lente. Well, you did take your time. The clock was never really mine, as it belongs to the ideals of the Art and Craft movement. However, I was lucky enough to know it for a substantial period of my life. But more than anything, Archibald, who you are and how you created beauty has given me a new way of being.

Yours Sincerely,
Julie Barker


You can follow Julie via her Twitter, @burningsky6.

The White Crag Cartel by Joseph Sax

Joseph Sax is an American currently living Dubai, UAE, where he works for a political risk consultancy. While Joe’s professional interests revolve around the politics of the Middle East and international affairs, he has long been burdened with an overactive imagination and a juvenile love of make-believe.

The original concept for this story derives from a stint shovelling snow for neighbours in the late aughts.

 


 

The White Crag Cartel

 

In middle school, my parents gave me five dollars a week. I could buy the weekly Aquaman comic, a bag of Skittles, and two Airheads. In the winter, when park benches, cars, and houses became misshapen lumps in the great white snowscape of my hometown, I would trudge home, sit in the kitchen, read through the comic book, and eat the candy. “Give him an allowance,” thought my parents, “but not too much. Teach him the power of money, but also teach him its limits.”

At first, it was thrilling to have money. My parents were no longer the gatekeepers between me and all the comic books and sweets in the world, and the Aquaman-Skittles-Airheads bounty became a staple, but when I started bringing back five comics a day, with a big pile of candy, it was immediately obvious that something had changed. My mother later told me that it was this shift in my buying patterns that tipped her off about my second income. I suppose it didn’t help that I obfuscated the reality of the situation to the best of my thirteen-year-old ability. It must have worried the poor woman sick. “Prices went down,” I told her once, mouth full of Skittles, nose buried in Watchmen. Did she buy it? Was she worried for my safety? Did she assume that her son might be dealing drugs, or worse?

Obviously, I wasn’t dealing drugs. I was up to something more ambitious.

 

I was thirteen at the time that all this took place, and living in my hometown: White Crag, New Hampshire. The eponymous white crag is Mount Washington, whose internationally renowned poor weather gave our tiny town what little communal prestige we had, but also profoundly shaped the local economy. Whiteout blizzards were a seasonal occurrence. It was understood that the young and fit helped out the old when everyone got snowed in. So it was that, one December, I was conscripted by my loving but unsuspecting parents to shovel the sidewalk and driveway.

Shovels in White Crag occupied the same niche as the family Brown Bess in the pioneering days of yore. It symbolized man’s attempt to keep nature at bay. Something about the pioneer glory of the smoothbore musket was lost in the transition from guns to shovels, but the local shovel vendor’s slogan tried to capture the nostalgia: “when Jack Frost knocks, we knock back.”

Shoveling snow in one of White Crag’s howling blizzards is about as much fun as it sounds, but tricks of the imagination make it more pleasant. All that snow gear is probably the closest any adolescent in New England can get to wearing a suit of chivalric plate armor. The ten or so minutes you spend putting on long johns, pants, then snow pants, then the coat, then the gloves, makes you feel like the squires are getting you suited up for battle. Thick gloves become gauntlets, snow-pants are greaves. This stuff is the bread and butter of the male imagination until they discover alcohol and sports. The lucky ones never do.

It was a lot of snow, but the biting cold made it a fine powder. Every shovelful kicked up a swirl of glittering, razor-sharp flakes that the driving wind blew straight into my face. I was not working without compensation, mind you. My parents were paying me a couple of bucks for my troubles, which could yield an extra comic if I gave up the Airheads. Eventually, I spent so much time thinking about different permutations of comics and candy that I ran out of snow to shovel. As I hefted the shovel over my aching shoulder and began to head home, someone called my name.

“Eric! Eric, young man, come here.”

We lived next door to the Klabers, an elderly couple. Rudolf Klaber, whose personality was every bit as German as his name, was waving to me from his front porch.

I waded through the pristine snow to the porch, where he was waiting in a light fleece and comically oversized gloves. “Listen, Eric,” he said, “we’re just too old to shovel all that snow. How about I give you a dollar and you shovel it for us?”

That was it. That was when I realized that White Crag’s snow was not a curse, it was a bounty. That was when I began to build my empire.

“How about five?” I asked.

Looking back, this was an obviously cheeky move, but old Rudolf Klaber seemed amused. “Five it is. Go get to work.”

 

Klaber paid me five dollars to shovel the next snowstorm off his driveway, too. It was easy enough to leverage this against my parents the next time they offered two dollars to shovel. “Rudolf Klaber pays me five,” I said. After some protest, so did they.

The next step, of course, was to expand the operation. I landed two more shoveling gigs after Klaber put in a good word at his weekly bridge club. My folks were aware of the Klaber arrangement, but I never told them about the others. This was when they noticed that my expenditures were much higher than what they thought was my income.

Meanwhile, I was reaching capacity. Spending snow days shoveling for old people had great novelty at first, but was exhausting, boring, and solitary. It was with great pain at the thought of dividing my winnings that I brought on Bert Brown, a close friend. He required no maintenance other than half the earnings and some hot chocolate after a day’s work, and did not interfere in the management side of the operation at all (of which I was greedily protective). I didn’t own a computer back then, so I kept simple records on a Microsoft Excel file on the family desktop. It wasn’t sophisticated stuff, just a list of each house I had shoveled, how much they paid, and how many houses I could hit on a particular day.

Neither Bert nor my parents ever saw this file. I put it in a folder labeled “Age of Mythology Saved Games.”

 

While working with Bert made the jobs easier, the real payoff for having him around came after we snagged his family’s snowblower. Most houses in White Crag had small sheds in the backyard, some serving as literal armories; all my parents put in ours were gardening tools and a modest barbecue grill. Bert’s shed was home to the venerable snowblower his family used every winter. I’m convinced to this day that Bert only ever agreed to join my operation because he couldn’t use his own yard as a springboard for his.

The heist took place on a moonless Friday night, with significant snowfall predicted for the next day. At two o’clock in the morning, I slid out of bed and crept downstairs to the closet, where I hurriedly dressed myself. I had a moment of complete paralyzed panic in front of the bathroom mirror, stuck over the decision of whether I should try to camouflage myself against the black of the woods or the white of the snow.

In the end, it didn’t matter. I wanted to stick to backyards and the treeline to avoid detection, but the knee-high snow made for slow going, and my socks soon became drenched. Fed up, I took the sidewalk most of the way to Bert’s house.

Bert had already opened the shed by then, and had the snowblower sitting in his driveway.

“What now?” he said.

I have to admit, I hadn’t thought this part out. When the big weekend storm was first forecast, I did some highly questionable math and decided that having the snowblower would let us hit three additional houses. I factored the additional revenue into my weekly buying plan, resolved to set some aside in Eric’s Lego TIE-Fighter Fund, and worked out that I would be able to buy one in three weeks’ time.

But I hadn’t thought about what to do with the snowblower between that night and the storm the next day.

In the end, we pushed it all the way back to my house, which was unpleasant. The streets of White Crag at night were poorly-lit, cold, and utterly silent. Bert told me during the walk that he had asked his folks for permission to borrow the snowblower that weekend, which left me relieved, but slightly disappointed. We stashed it in the shed in my backyard, which my parents hadn’t touched since the first big snowfall.

Why such secrecy? Why go to such obsessive lengths to plan as much as possible, then reveal those plans to no one? Even as an older, more mature version of myself, I have no explanation. It just felt so satisfying at the time to bury the complexity of my little empire in secrecy. I can still recall that satisfaction.

 

The rest of the winter went pretty smoothly. Bert and I dictated prices, which we set at a flat 10 dollars per yard. Old man Klaber always paid 5 bucks, which I suppose was a sort of loyalty reward.

That summer, my parents enrolled me in economics classes at CTY. I should have just spent the summer playing Monopoly. I spent three months drawing graphs and falling behind on Aquaman, and learned nothing. Come the beginning of eighth grade, I was thrilled when the next blizzard season started early, burying White Crag in gossamer snowdrifts. Bert and I hit five houses. Liz Akgun, a neighbor around my age who was in my CTY class, did three with her older brother, James. I panicked when I first heard we had competition. Bert was (and is) made of calmer stuff, and managed to set up talks at the local Dairy Queen. The atmosphere was very cordial, and the Akgun group agreed to set their prices equal to ours.

Thus was born the White Crag Cartel. For one winter, we owned the town, charged what we wanted, and got rich.

 

You could be forgiven for thinking, from the way I’m telling this story that I hibernated away springs and summers and autumns, and lived only for the planning and scheming and shoveling of White Crag’s near-polar winters. I think of it more the way a dedicated one-season athlete thinks about their sport’s season. That time of year is special. For those few months, everything else steps aside and the athlete becomes a different person. For the rest of the year, one feels bottled up and sluggish, itching to return to top form.

But my secrecy and obsessive monopolization of the planning process was simply not sustainable. I put a piece of myself into the planning and organization of the Cartel, and met at least twice with Klaber to discuss the public relations image he would present at his bridge club. Everyone else was losing interest in shoveling snow and taking instructions.

At the end of that winter, in line to buy tickets at the movie theater with Bert and Liz, I showed them an annotated map of the neighborhood I had made in Microsoft Paint. They exchanged a hesitant glance that at the time I interpreted as a sign of their burgeoning romance (they would go on to be each other’s prom dates in high school), but which I now realize was each one waiting for the other to tell me that they had moved on from the Cartel. Bert was kind enough to tell me that night that he wouldn’t be shoveling the next winter. “Sorry, man,” he said. “I’m pretty into this music thing, and I’ve got this band now, so…”

I hate it when people end sentences with “so.”

 

In autumn of freshman year, I did some yard work for old man Klaber. White Crag’s trees, in the fall, were stunningly beautiful kaleidoscopes of color for all of about ten minutes. Afterwards, all that beauty and spectacle became a carpet of rotting plant matter that needed to be disposed of.

That September afternoon, I sat on Klaber’s back porch drinking hot apple cider, gazing out at the neat bags of leaves. Raking was no substitute for shoveling. Snow was a renewable resource; a leaf could only fall once.

Klaber brought out a tuna sandwich and set it on a small table next to my chair. He put it down and clapped a hand on my shoulder.

“So what’s the next step for the family business, sport? Corporatizing? Opening an East Asian division? When can I start trading stocks on the market?”

I took a sip of the cider. “I don’t know if I’ll be doing that again this winter, Mr. Klaber.”

Klaber sat down. He sat down in that elderly way, exhaling and gingerly dropping himself into the chair. I could almost hear whining hydraulics and grinding gears as his ancient joints bent.

“So what’s the problem, hmm?”

I told Klaber about Bert’s doubts, but that I still planned to keep the cartel running.

“Sounds like you need to think about why you do all that shoveling, Eric. You’re too smart to do be doing it because you like hauling snow. Is it really just all about the money?”

For whatever reason, at the time, I said yes.

 

The next year, when the big storms started, nobody showed up to the meeting I called at the DQ. I don’t remember their excuses.

The Cartel ended where it all started: Rudolf Klaber’s front yard. Liz Akgun was traveling with the debate team and Bert Brown had a rehearsal with his prog-rock garage band. The snow was so wet and dense that day that it felt like I was hauling shovelfuls of molasses. After the job was done, Klaber handed me the five-dollar bill like he always did. But this time I somehow didn’t want to take it.

It wasn’t my aching back and arms, or that I didn’t feel the need to work for another Lego TIE-Fighter. I just felt no connection between the work I had done and the money I was being given for it. It was too automatic, too simple.

“Keep it,” I finally said to him.

“What, you’re shoveling for charity now?” he said with a grin. “Take it. You earned it.”

He was right, for the most basic meaning of the word “earn.” I had moved some snow and he was willing to compensate me for it.

But I hadn’t put a piece of myself into earning it. There had been no artistry into the planning of execution of that job, instead of another job. It hadn’t been fun. It hadn’t been brilliant.

It was a guy paying some kid to shovel his yard. That’s all.

Workshop: Stranger Things, Season One by Angela Hicks & Calder Hudson

Angela Hicks and Calder Hudson were both Creative Writing MSc students at the University of Edinburgh for the 2015-16 year. As part of their ongoing workshop series, the two sat down and discussed their varied thoughts on Season One of Netflix’s Stranger Things, which was released in 2016 to widespread acclaim.

This discussion contains spoilers for Season One of Stranger Things. The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the authors and not necessarily of The Ogilvie’s entire editorial staff.

 


C: In anticipation of Stranger Things’ upcoming second season, we wanted to take a closer look at how the show got the ball rolling last year. Unlike most of the series we’ve workshopped, this was the first that we really binge-watched, and that fast pace is probably indicative or our positive feelings towards the show. I, at least, am already excited about Season Two.

A: Definitely. But because we’re curmudgeonly people, and because this is a workshop, we’re still going to look at what it could have done better as well. Should we start with the cool things, or…?

C: Hmm.

A: I mean, I think the 80s is probably where we should begin. This show has taken a lot of distinctive, iconic 80s films and melded their plots together to end up with a crazy, retro mash-up of ET meets Nightmare on Elm Street meets Pretty in Pink.

C: Sure, yeah. Stranger Things’ 80s aesthetic is very immediate. I had some initial cynicism about the setting–it seemed superficial, an attempt at evoking nostalgia from the 80s without really doing anything new within this genre. Initially the show’s sole aim appeared to be the accumulation of tropes and visuals akin to those which were prevalent in the 80s–and while ST does definitely bank on that quite a bit, sometimes almost to the point of parody, it’s nonetheless very substantive, and it draws you in largely through its characters, who emerge from the 80s woodwork as the show develops.

A: I agree; at first I wasn’t convinced about how well ST juggled its smorgasbord of 80s genres, and, as you said, it felt like it wasn’t doing anything new–it had just harvested parts from other films. But I came round to it over the course of the season, in part because ST really commits to its decisions. They make the 80s work because they were determined to thrust both the positives and (some of) the negatives of that era into the foreground.

C: Yeah, that’s a good point. By the end of the season I was all about the 80s vibe. And they use the 80s aesthetic well and make it work for them. Things like the walkie-talkies fit for the time period but also help to ramp up the drama at certain moments. There is a lot of nostalgia and referencing in the show and it’s very indulgent with regards to the setting and with the genres and tropes which come with it–but yeah, ‘indulgence’ works well here.

A: Right. And it’d be wrong to say that it just steals from earlier shows and films. As you mentioned, it adds a lot of depth to its characters, which in turn adds more layers to the plot and keeps the audience engaged throughout the season.

C: I’d say that ST has very recognizably taken inspiration and ideas from early works. It makes some cool choices which help rework tropes and plots you’d otherwise recognize, but ultimately it’s the mixing of the plots which makes this show stand out. It’s buffet-style cinema–it delivers lots of different things which are pretty standard within their own genre, but what makes them unusual is having them all together. It succeeds as a strong, character-driven story in part because it indulges in a lot of different elements which we’ve seen before while reworking and interweaving them effectively.

A: It’s one of those rare shows where the end result is more than its sum parts. And it does get rid of or subvert some of the more problematic elements in 80s TV and film.

C: Exactly. Would this be a good place to talk about the characters, in particular the show’s presentation of female characters, within its context as Horror, Action/Adventure, and 80s-esque TV?

A: (laughs) With those caveats, I’d say it does great women–but I think it also does well without those caveats. If we look at Nancy and her plotline, for example–I think they do a great job of building her up slowly and developing her character arc. She starts off in a pretty standard teen romance, but as events around her happen, she changes in response to them. ST is excellent at developing its characters so that none of their actions feel unjustified with regards to their original portrayal, but the audience gets to see them develop throughout the series.

C: I wish they’d emphasized her interactions with Barb more–to be honest I feel like Barb is just undervalued throughout–but yeah, Nancy is initially thrust into a pretty recognizable love triangle, but the show tinkers with that narrative in interesting ways, and throughout that storyline, Nancy has agency. It feels like her decisions matter and factor into the narrative, into the larger story… in that respect this show has avoided more uncomfortable aspects of how films and shows from the 80s depict women.

A: And Joyce! Joyce is great. Some of that just comes from the fact that it’s nice to have a single parent portrayed as the responsible, caring adult in contrast to Mike and Nancy’s indifferent parents. But also Joyce is a really well-developed character; she feels so human and motivated.

C: Winona Ryder does a really good job bringing out the drive behind the character. There aren’t really negatives to workshop here. I’d say that other writing and shows can learn a lot from Joyce. The fact she’s shown to be vulnerable and flawed makes her no less compelling and sympathetic to the audience.

A: Yeah; I think when TV shows especially want to create strong female leads, ‘strong’ often tends to mean ‘genius woman who needs charismatic/buffoonish man to humanize her’. ST has three main female characters whom I would describe as ‘strong’ and none of them are in the way that TV shows often mean that adjective. One of the great things about ST is that it takes the risk of actually making its female leads three-dimensional.

C: It shouldn’t be a risk for a show to present women as more than just a handful of character traits, but you’re right that that’s often not the case, and it was refreshing to watch something which bucked against negative TV trends. On top of that, you spoke about ST having three main female characters, which reminds me that we still need to talk about Eleven, or Elle.

A: Um… having just raved about how great the show is for its women, I did sometimes feel like Elle was more of a plot device than a character, especially in the way that the other children interacted with her–Mike and his friends tended to view her as a weapon, or as a slightly dangerous pet, rather than a person. But I think that’s an issue to do with the writing in a wider context, rather than to do with the show’s portrayal of women.

C: Hmm. Yeah. I don’t know if that is intentional by the writing team or not–maybe the kids are just supposed to be dumb kids who don’t really understand how to comfort someone who has been through so much trauma. That narrative gets stronger throughout the season and leads to satisfying conclusions–and Elle stands out there, in a good way. Also, the fact that this show’s gifted hero character is a girl is cool–and as you said earlier, women stand out in a positive way across the board. I love Hopper, but the most iconic characters in this show are far and away Joyce and Elle.

A: One of my favorite scenes is towards the end when Joyce is comforting Elle in the paddling pool; I really liked that moment. We’ve seen in flashbacks that Dr. Brenner hasn’t done this for Elle, so it’s very gratifying when she finally gets a kind parental figure.

C: And it adds to the feeling that Joyce is just this unequivocal force for good.

A: It’s a lovely moment. But from a workshopping perspective, it’s a really great demonstration of the confidence this show has in itself and in its audience. In the moments before and after Joyce comforts Elle, we aren’t subjected to Dr. Brenner flashbacks or anything like that–these happened in earlier episodes, and the show trusts its audience to be engaged enough to remember and understand how important a moment this is. I think I’ve spoken about this in other workshops we’ve done, but it’s just so nice, as a viewer, to not be continually hit over the head with foreshadowing and the like.

C: And to watch a show which doesn’t keep demanding points from you for achieving the bare minimum with characters. That’s refreshing.

A: I feel compelled to mention (as we do every workshop) that the acting in this is great.

C: True. Though at times we’ve brought up acting in part to say “look, these are very skilled actors; they shouldn’t be held accountable for the faults of the writing team”–and in this case that isn’t why we’re doing so. ST’s acting really helps to ground and legitimize the fantastical elements within the narrative. This show incorporates elements from a ton of genres and some of its buildup might not have worked as well without a strong cast. The writers and the cast alike do a good job of maneuvering between emotional tones, not to mention genres and situations.

A: That’s true. Are there any areas where we think the writing could’ve improved? What about the flashback scenes–did they work for you?

C: Yeah, they did. Flashbacks can be a risk–they take away from the action and can be really ham-fisted sometimes–but here they work terrifically. They aren’t overused and they’re always relevant.

A: I agree. They don’t go overboard and they provide very useful depth. Um, what about the cliffhangers then? And the melodramatic moments like finding Will’s body?

C: Hmm.

A: For me, that was one of the few times where the show is too concerned with being dramatic and in doing so loses sight of the characters. They’re so focused on the suspense within the situation–what are the State Troopers doing at the lake? Is it really Will?–that they entirely miss the human tragedy of the moment. It was a shame that things like Hopper’s devastation were overshadowed by their desire to create a cliffhanger.

C: It is odd how many cliffhangers they inserted into ST. People consume shows like this through Netflix binges, so cliffhangers aren’t needed to bring people back week after week. And a lot of them don’t work because they feel superfluous, unlike most other aspects of the story. For example, Nancy’s brief foray into the Upside Down ends on a misleading cliffhanger which was then resolved about five minutes into the next episode. It was one of the few disappointing elements.

A: Yeah, there’s the sense that they lost confidence in themselves when they put in these overly dramatic moments.

C: And generally the plot is very believable, though admittedly there were a few times that you and I exchanged a look while watching this. After one episode we discussed how the mysterious governmental antagonists have a penchant for the dramatic.

A: They really do. And some of the human villains’ decisions feel very over-the-top and unnecessary.

C: Like shooting the café owner?

A: Exactly. He was sweet but dense. They could’ve lied to him instead of going for this excessively dramatic but ultimately stupid murder. I think that probably all the human villains are slightly too basic; they’re almost pastiches of their characters. We see this especially with the bullies in both the younger and older bracket. Given the lengths ST goes to show how multifaceted the major characters are (and also many of the minor characters, like Scott the teacher), it’s a shame the show drops the ball with the minor bad guys. And that’s true for the main villains too.

C: Yeah, that’s fair. I think we may fundamentally disagree on the nuance, or lack thereof, which is necessary for bullying to happen… actually, I don’t know, I was initially going to disagree, but the more I think about it, there is perhaps a shared lack of depth between the schoolyard antagonists and the big-scary-government antagonists, plus of course the supernatural-horror antagonists. Like many shows and movies, ST (rightly) focuses on establishing its expansive cast of characters first, but as a result they don’t leave a ton of time to build up the first-season villains. The antagonist they spend the most time developing is probably the Demigorgon, who doesn’t really appear that much, especially in comparison to the other villains–

A: Although it is a good monster. I was worried it would end up being a letdown, and that moment-of-reveal would fall short, but actually the weird plant face and everything works well to keep the horror vibe going. And yes, agreed about the human antagonists; as you say, the show mostly gets away with it because they build up the protagonists so well, but they could have given their villains more depth.

C: And possibly some of their minor characters too, like Nancy and Mike’s parents, especially their mother, Karen. She’s this parody of a parent who wants to be approachable but doesn’t understand her children–she spends most of the show telling Nancy either “you can always talk to me about what’s wrong” or “you’re a promiscuous liar”–often in rapid succession… I don’t know, I couldn’t tell if that was intended or accidental, but you leave the season feeling much less sympathetic towards her than you could have, given the show’s circumstances.

A: It was especially annoying because it felt unnecessary to demonize her. I don’t think we’d have felt differently about Mike or Nancy, or even Joyce as another parent, if Karen had a little more substance.

C: To be fair, they do manage to give depth to a lot of the characters. Like Steve–he starts off pretty two-dimensional and you think he’s mainly there to juxtapose with Jonathan, but over time they take the self-centered high school jock trope and develop it into someone with real nuance.

A: Oh my goodness, that scene in Jonathan’s house when Nancy and Jonathan are hunting the Demigorgon and then Steve arrives–it was so stressful! That was not an emotion I’d been expected to feel in connection to Steve.

C: The show does a great job of weaving together the different stories and characters, and of making you care about all of them. To begin with, it matches each of the core casts with a genre: the adults are on this mystery track with horror elements, the teens are entrenched in this high school romance plot, and the kids are in an ET kind of scenario, which contains horror elements intermingled with notions of youthful exploration and imagination. As they bring these casts together, they also bring more horror elements into each of the core stories, which makes it easier to synthesize them.

A: Definitely. ST has a large ensemble cast, which can be tricky for a show to do well, but all the main characters and their plots are engaging, in part because of the way they interact and influence each other.

C: The last ten minutes or so of the season finale are present entirely to set up Season Two. In most shows that would bother me, but here they’ve earned it.

A: Yeah, there are some odd moments in the story where events, fortuitous and gratuitous, save characters from otherwise certain death, but it holds together. It gets stronger as it goes on, too, and whether that’s them finding their feet or just building momentum, I’m not sure, but it works. Unlike a lot of its inspirations and predecessors–particularly horrors and mysteries we’ve seen in the past few years–it follows through and builds on itself well, slowly and steadily. And I really hope Elle’s going to come back.

C: Who can say.

A: (laughs)

C: Within the context of the shows we’ve workshopped, this ranks high; they’ve absolutely earned a second season, and in many respects I think they’ve gone above and beyond.

A: Also, their allusions to Season Two weren’t frustrating. They concluded Season One well and then sprinkled in more details, unlike some shows we’ve seen, which have been so concerned with setting up Season Two they don’t end Season One in a satisfying way.

C: True. As per tradition we should also mention the opening sequence. It establishes what they’re aiming for; it’s an ominous, deep 80s synth. Works well.

A: It’s also super distinctive, and I think they made the right call to have a pared-back opening which is simple but strong. It’s not overlong, which is nice given how much goes on during this show; we want to get to the characters. It’s like the opposite of the American Gods intro. So, I agree, it works.

C: You think it’ll be different in Season Two? I wouldn’t be bothered either way.

A: They could have… blue writing.

C: (laughs) That’s the change?

A: Yes.

C: Yeah. Get it together, Duffer Brothers. Why so much red? That’s the takeaway from this workshop: great show, excellent work, too much red.

A: I meant it’s the blue to red shift–you know, soundwaves? The Doppler effect? And they’re going to go back in time.

C: (processing)

A: Have you never watched the opening sequence to Doctor Who?

C: I’m not really smart enough to process what you’re saying here, but I’m sure it’s right, whatever it is. Let’s just end it here and go watch the Season Two trailer. I’m jonesing.


Angela and Calder are available at their respective Twitter accounts, @MS_a_hicks and @CMA_Hudson. Their previous workshop of American Gods is accessible here.

Sacrifice by Daniel Adler

Daniel Adler was born in Brooklyn, New York and has also lived in Portland, Oregon. He studied at New York University and is currently pursuing an MSc in Creative Writing at The University of Edinburgh. His fiction has appeared in BlazeVox, The Opiate, ThoseThatThis, Five2One, and elsewhere. 

 


 

 

Sacrifice

 

The man woke the child while the mother was still in bed. “Where are we going?” the boy asked, his voice heavy from sleep.

“We have a meeting,” said his father. “I’m making breakfast. Get dressed and come downstairs.” The boy groaned and rolled over. “Come on,” said his father. The boy sighed and threw back the covers, swinging his legs onto the floor. His bones ached; he was growing. He picked up the pants he had left at the foot of his bed, put on yesterday’s t-shirt one arm at a time, and stood, the floorboards creaking under his weight.

The boy’s father stood over the stove. Eggs spat grease, a bowl of oatmeal steamed on the table. He slid an egg from the pan onto a plate and brought it to his son. The boy took the spoon from his oatmeal and dug at the yolk, letting it run over the white, brown at the edges.

“We have a long day,” said his father.

“Where are we going?” asked the boy again.

“You’ll see.”

The morning was still purple. Despite the boy’s coat, he shivered as he opened the car door and waited in the silence. His father slammed the door, blew on his hands, buckled his seatbelt, and turned the key in the ignition. At the light before the entrance ramp to the highway the boy reached to turn on the radio, but his father said, “No music. Too early.” The light changed; the car lunged and did not stop accelerating until the road was passing underneath its wheels at sixty miles an hour. The boy closed his eyes. When he woke large shrubs had replaced the forest, the sun was high and mountains stood on the horizon.

“We’re going to the desert?”

“We’re in the desert.”

“What are we doing?”

“Changing something.”

“What do you mean?”

“I–we have to change how we do things.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’ll see. Be patient.”

“Is it a surprise?”

“Yes,” said the father, but his gaze stayed straight ahead. The boy stared at his father, mouth ajar and then looked out his window.

Soon the car began to climb. The desert became a sandbox, the sky turned gray, and on the side of the road snow patches grew into fields of white, piles higher than the car. They slowed and crunched gravel on the shoulder. The father turned the keys in the ignition, clicked his seatbelt and opened the door. “Come on.”

The boy inhaled the cold air. His father moved to the backseat and the boy ran to a boulder and scuttled to its sloping crest. From here he could see the back of the mountain, a landscape of rock and hardy plants that gave way to more forest. He recalled a mountain goat he had seen once standing this way. When he turned, his father was at the foot of the rock holding a gun.

“Trust me, son,” said his father, cocking it. “We have to believe this is for the best.”

“What’s for the best?”

“The other night I had a dream. God came to me and said, ‘Take your boy into the mountains and sacrifice him to me. And if he believes, if he really believes, then you can point the gun at him and pull the trigger and everything will be made right. I will come to your aid and fix everything in my name.’ Now don’t be afraid. Just believe.”

“Believe what?”

“Believe that everything will be all right. That it will be okay, that God will make it right.”

“Does Mom know about this?”

“Your mother and I are being run into the ground, boy. Every month the bills come and we pay them with credit. It’s getting worse. We can’t feed you, we can’t buy you clothes for school, we can hardly live. But if you believe, if you really believe, then it will be okay. Now I’m going to come closer, so that when I pull this trigger God will have no objection, he won’t be able to accuse me, I’m not going to let anyone accuse me of not believing. Think–do you really want to go on living this way?”

The boy backed away.

“Please, son. Stop. Just trust me. Trust that you’ll be okay.” Tears of fear streaked the boy’s cheeks. “Don’t cry, don’t be afraid, trust me. Make it easier and get on your knees.” The boy backed up but there was nowhere to go but down. “Please,” said his father. “Nothing bad will happen if you trust me. I swear.” The boy looked into the gray sky, as if for an angel to come save him. His father was only a few paces away, the gun at his side. “Listen to me, it’s for your own good. It’s for our good.”

The boy gulped and wiped his tears with the back of his hand. “Okay,” he said, taking a knee. The stone was sharp through his jeans.

“Thank you,” sighed his father, the gun cold on the boy’s forehead. “Now I’m gonna count to three. Nothing is going to happen, I need you to believe that. Because if you don’t…” The boy could not control his tears and he quivered like a lamb. “Look,” said the man. “You gotta say it to believe. Say, ‘I believe I will live and everything will be all right.’ I’ll say it with you–”

“I believe,” said the boy but his voice trembled and cracked. “I believe I will live and everything will be all right.”

“Now really mean it,” said his father. “Say it again. Say ‘I will live and everything will be all right.’”

“I will live and everything will be all right,” said the boy.

“I will live and everything will be all right,” they repeated together.

“Okay,” said his father, “keep saying it.”

The boy went on, “…and everything will be all right.” And then his father pulled the trigger.


You can follow Daniel via his Twitter, @DanielRyanAdler.

 

 

A Moment’s Surrender by Maeda Zia

Maeda Zia is a graduate student based in Karachi, Pakistan. In her spare time, she likes to binge-watch foreign dramas, hoard books and occasionally worry about her dissertation. 

 


 

A Moment’s Surrender

 

The dars is supposed to start in two hours. Nothing is ready. The biryani–mutton, he’s only been dead a year–is still simmering. The white sheets, wet, flap in the breeze. The dars aunty isn’t here. Phone goes straight to a naat. What, did her saintly nostrils pick up the scent of uncooked biryani, the heek of the gosht, and she bailed? Ridiculous. The dars will start in two hours. Aik tau yeh kameez. The collar’s too high; it hems in your throat. You pull at it impatiently; it’s no use. Ittar swirls around your apartment; you inhale it with every breath you take. The scent scratches your throat. You can’t breathe.

Where is Ali? These caterers will listen to a man, they’ll look to him for the cash, eyes straying expectantly to his wallet (empty). They’ll turn to him even though it was you who stood at the funeral, supervising. Just where is Ali? Why must he always disappear? Are he and darsi churail blessed with the same gift of scuttling away when work awaits? Your sandals thump harder and harder as you walk across the apartment. You’ve checked the kitchen. You’ve checked the drawing room–it’s a 2 bedroom flat; where the fuck is he? As you walk by the bathroom connecting Ali’s room and yours, you hear a yelp and a clatter behind the bathroom’s door. Rats? Not today, please, the phuppos will die of glee. You hate this bathroom. Your cousins renovated it when they owned it. You hate the gaudy golden tiles patterning the sinks, striping the walls, the sink. Fuck this rat-infested bathroom.

Your lips are hemmed in anger as you push the door. No rats. Just Ali. Must he be preening on a day like this?

As you take in the sight, you correct yourself: trying to preen, really.

Your brother–blessed, beloved Ali (last in the womb, first in our hearts) is standing in front of the sink. His chin is slathered with shaving cream. He is scrabbling at his face, fingers clawing away the skin. He bites down at his lip as he squints at himself in the mirror. You don’t think. You are at the sink, gripping his chin, skin and cream and all.

“Are you hurt?”

“Choro!” He jerks away.

You pay no heed and tighten your grip. There doesn’t seem to be much damage. A few scratches here and there. You note the razor in the sink, suspended in the cream. A thin line of red gleams and catches on the silver.

“Were you trying to shave?” You can’t believe it. You snatch the razor and hold it up to the light. You haven’t seen one this cheap since you first started shaving your legs. You were embarrassed at the wiry stubble there, you wanted it gone, so you grabbed the first razor you could find. Stubble gave way to scratches and scabs. You didn’t use that razor again. Yet here it is; same brand, different model, still flimsy.

His eyes narrow. “No shit,” he retorts.

You don’t pay him any attention. He can’t be this old, not so fast. Wasn’t it yesterday he was a gangly child, fidgeting, standing beside your father’s’ coffin? What gleamed whiter? The shroud your father was wrapped in or the kurta your brother wore? At your father’s funeral, Ali mourned; you managed.

Seems like you’ll have to manage this too.

You huff. “You suck at this. Let me do it.”

“Like you’re any better,” he says, but he obeys; he hands over the razor; you dip it under the tap and rinse it. Foam and stubble pool at the drain, a heap of ashes. Your brother eyes you warily.

“Dude, chill, I’ve done this bef–” you bite off your sentence. Don’t let your brother know, the phuppos decreed. You’re never to let him know that A Female inhabits this bathroom, with her pads, cotton soaked red, bound up in plastic, disposed of before their stench can ever pervade the bathroom. Instead, you call your wax-vaali on the days he’s not home so he doesn’t see Annie tottering back and forth, huffing at a cup of hot wax balanced in her palms. No bras, no panties to be left on the floor. Not now, not ever. What if he saw?

You hold the blade and look at your brother. Traces of shaving cream remain on his face. Idiot didn’t apply enough cream. Grabbing the tube, you squeeze out more into your palms. Chalo–at least he bought a decent brand. After the heat of the caterer’s daighs, the coolness of the cream is a balm. You pat down the cream with your fingers and pick up the razor.

You remember your father. He shaved every morning before he went to work. He swirled his razor in a bowl of water before taking it to his face. He would apply the cream slowly, methodically. If you focus, you can pinpoint the exact moment when he would pick up his razor and begin.

You grasp Ali’s chin and guide it upwards. In the translucent light, his skin is almost yellow. His Adam’s apple bobs up and down. What would it mean for the blade to glide upon his Adam’s apple? How hard would you have to press it down to make a welt? How much pressure to make those welts become large, gaping holes? Why are you thinking this? You can’t do this. The razor feels heavy, foreign in your hand. Your brother seems to tower above you. You want your father. This is his job, not yours.

Inhale.

Exhale.

“Seedhay ho.” Your hand curls over Ali’s shoulder. ”You’ll need to sit down. You’re too tall.”

He nods. He shuffles out of the bathroom. You stare down at the sink. Your father kept an engraved bowl on the left. Where did it go? Was it passed on to an uncle or simply discarded? You can’t remember.

A noise makes you look up. Your brother appears in the doorway, dragging a chair (oh God, it’s one of the dars chairs, he didn’t even take off the white cover) to the sink. As he stands in front of the sink, you position yourself in front of him. Your hands encircle his shoulder and you push him down into the chair.

Now that he sits down, you tower over him. You are suddenly aware of the closeness between you two, the air seems to constrict. If he leans even an inch forward, his face would be right in your chest. You cannot let that happen. You propel his chin upward, ignoring his protests. His throat is bared to you.

Lights catches off the razor as you begin. You are careful. You bring it down in smooth, wide strokes.

“Why don’t you have a shaving brush like the one Abbu had?” You ask. That brush had an ornate, wooden handle. When Abbu would step out of the bathroom to take his shirt, and you, hovering in the doorway, would step inside, your feet light on the cool tiles. You would hold his brush, the bristles damp and limp, and graze it against your own skin. When Abbu returned, you would be back in the doorway. He never saw.

“What? What brush?”

“Y’know, the shaving brush, the kind you use to spread the cream.”

He shrugs. “Don’t know, never used–”

“Don’t move! God, did nobody teach you how to shave?”

His silence is answer enough. Necessity forced you to turn to friends. Absence forced him to turn to the mirror, a blade in hand.

If Abbu had been alive, would he have been the one to teach him? Buy him a razor? Guide his hands as he shaved for the first time? No, that’s not like Abbu. He would have stood at the side and issued instructions. Like the time he taught you to drive. Calmly, methodically. He didn’t bat an eye when you nearly rammed the car into the gate. Too bad he didn’t teach you how to shave. You choke back a laugh and focus on the razor.

The razor glides across Ali’s cheeks; you don’t know why he’s shaving, there’s just stubble. You have to step closer, you’re shaving too wide. You don’t think; you step in between his legs. Fuck. Too close.  You can’t go back now. Keep at it. You dab a towel at his cheeks, the foam dissolves, leaving skin behind.

The new rawness of his skin reminds you of him as a baby. Ammi passed away soon after the birth. It was always you and him and Abbu. Cradling his head in the crook of your elbow. You learnt how to nurture before you learnt how to love.

His skin–waxy yellow, clean shaven–looks just like your father’s when you saw him last. Wrapped in white, peaceful. Doesn’t he look like he’s sleeping, you were asked over and over by hysterical relatives. No, he didn’t. You crept into your parents’ bed every Sunday morning till you were too old. Till Ali. You would lie next to your father, watch his chest rise and fall. His warmth. The corpse before you, was cold. But you didn’t say any of that. You had simply nodded. Bile rises in your throat, lines your mouth. One slash and he’ll be next to Abbu, leaving you too.

You focus on Ali’s face until the bile recedes. There’s still a little bristle under his chin.

Your brother speaks. “Do you think he would have been happy? Would he have let this happen?”

You pause. The razor hovers beneath his chin. What does he want–no, need–to hear?

“No, he wouldn’t. We wouldn’t have had to leave home.”

You’re nearly done. One last glide and his skin is smooth.

Will you ever shave a man again like this?

“All done.”

You step back, assessing your handiwork. You need to make sure you did the job right. You rub a knuckle across his face, revelling in the smoothness. You expect your hand to be batted away but he lets you. You both know you will never touch him again like this.

You pause at the worst of the cuts. If you look past the cuts and the slightly crooked nose (10 years old, fell off his bike, broke his nose), he looks exactly like your father did in that old sepia portrait you found in his cupboard. Why can’t he be your father? Need grips you. Your mouth is dry as you lean in and brush your lips gently against the cut. You taste blood; coppery but nothing like the cotton in your father’s nostrils. Your brother doesn’t react. His chest rises and falls. You have only backed away when he rises up from the chair, sending it clattering back.

Ali shoulders you aside. “I’ll go dress, thanks.”

You’re left in the bathroom. You turn on the tap. The wiry hair in the basin swivels down the drain. The chair needs to be put back in its place.  You’ll have to clean up this mess before the dars begins. Your father is still dead. You have to handle everything. Ali’s blood lingers upon your lips. You let it be. The scent of the foam and ittar mingle and that’s all there is.


Maeda Zia can be contacted at ziamaeda@gmail.com.

 

Tae A Fermer by Jen Hughes

Jen Hughes is a writer from Ayrshire, Scotland. She has been writing from an early age, but began to write more poetry in her late teens. She’s been published in various online magazines, such as the Oletangy Review, the McStorytellers, Paragraph Planet and Pulp Metal Magazine. After taking two years to gain valuable work and life experience, Jen is preparing to study English Literature and Film & TV Studies at Glasgow University this year.

Tae A Fermer is a parody to Robert Burns’ poem Tae A Mouse, and is told from the perspective of the mouse whose house was struck down.

 


 

Tae A Fermer

 

Great, lumberin’ stupit eejit,
Almost killed me an’ the missus
Course a’d start awa sae hasty
Don’t think that a forgot
That all ye thought of were yer tatties
Carrots an’ shallots.

Ye rammed ma hoose doon wae yer tractor
Sae don’t gee me that righteous patter
O’ mice an’ men suffrin’ life together
Best laid schemes
Gang aft agley especially fur the
Dunderheids!

Am a hell blessed compared to thee
This Christmas a’m gonnae freeze!
The missus is less than pleased
She’d just redecorated
Forward though a cannae see
She’ll have me mollicated!


If you liked this poem, you can find Jen’s up-to- date portfolio of poetry and short fiction on dearoctopuswriting.wordpress.com, follow her on Twitter, give her a like on Facebook, or follow her Tumblr blog.

Secobarbital by Asad Zaidi

Asad Zaidi was born in England and moved to Pakistan at a young age, where he did most of his growing up. He has a BA in Biology (with a minor, he is quick to tell people, in English) from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA. He is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where he is working at a public health organization.

Secobarbital is a short story about difficult discussions and decisions, and the complicated natures of life, love, and loss. Readers are advised that this piece contains themes, conversations, and scenes on the subject of assisted suicide.

 


 

Secobarbital

 

My mind was elsewhere as my feet carried me through the corridors as they had done every day for countless days before that. I stopped at the right door and knocked. Salma opened it.

My heart ached at the sight of her. Her cheeks were hollowed; her eyes had puffy bags under them. It was as if the flesh of her face had been reshaped by worry and sorrow. Her hair had escaped its usual silver bun to form a limp frame around her face. She had been crying.

“Salma, I…”

Despite the June heat, Salma drew her gray shawl on her shoulders tighter around her body.

“He’s resting,” she said in a low voice. The tightness around her eyes slackened. “But it’s your turn.”  She opened the door wider to let me in.

The room was dimly lit and stuffy. A mud brown carpet lay on the floor. The single window looked into the next building without offering the tiniest glimpse of the sky. The air in the room, stirred by a wizened ceiling fan, smelled of old flowers. Saleem’s bed sat in the middle of the room, a mass of steel and white linen.

The only splash of color was a dresser at the far end of the room. It was laden with dozens of bouquets, cards, letters, and collages. Someone had even placed a digital photo album there, its screen displaying a loop of happy moments. People had been streaming in and out of the room all week to see Saleem, but today was only for Salma.

And for me.

Salma gave me a small nod and left the room as I sank into her chair by Saleem’s bed. It was still warm. I studied my friend. His eyes were closed, but his expression was still tight and contorted from the pain. New wrinkles seemed to line his gaunt face every time I looked at it. I could not get used to how big his ears now looked. Tufts of white hair sprouted from them. Not too long ago, Saleem would not have tolerated that; he had always hated looking untidy. The wispy hair on his head was white too. Once I had taken in as much of Saleem as I could, I cleared my throat.

He opened his eyes and turned his head towards me. A mischievous grin spread across his face and for a second he was the Saleem from decades ago, the Saleem branded into my memory, the Saleem who surfaced in my imagination whenever I thought of him. “You bastard!” he said. His voice had been smooth and deep once, but the coughing had made it raspy. Wincing, he propped himself up against his pillows. “You’re here.”

“Of course I’m here” I said. I didn’t even try to keep my voice steady. “It’s—it’s…”

“It’s my last day,” said Saleem.

He continued to smile, and held out his hand. I grabbed it and returned his grip. Once he had been able to crush my hands but now I was the one taking care not to hurt him. I closed my eyes, damming them shut, and bowed my head. Saleem did not need my tears today.

The lump in my throat hadn’t subsided when I opened my eyes again and looked at him; Saleem was busy examining our intertwined hands. For most of his life, his hands had been pudgy. Salma and I used to tease him for having sausages for fingers. But now they were frail, their bones jutting out, their veins protruding from behind translucent skin. My hands had changed as well, weathered and wrinkled now, when once they were pale and slender. “Dainty,” Saleem used to call them, “just like Salma’s”. Once, back when he and Salma were dating, he had dragged me to a jeweler to try on a ring he wanted to buy her.

“We’ve grown old,” I said. My voice sounded hollow.

“We’ve grown old together,” said Saleem. I tried to smile at that, but my face would not move the right way.

“You know,” he continued; I knew that ‘you know’ well. “I’ve been thinking about how to make my exit. When they’ve made me sign all the forms and I’ve taken the pill they give me, I’m going to do this–” he took a deep breath, raised his free hand as a fist and stuck his middle finger out “–and say, ‘So long, suckers!’”

He grinned at me, but his eyes looked tired. I scowled at him and he laughed a surprising, full-throated laugh, the sound reaching out to me from the years before his illness. I never wanted it to end.

A coughing fit cut short his laugher. His eyes bulged and veins popped up in his neck. His body convulsed, spasming with each cough. I leapt onto the bed, grabbed him by his shoulders, and pinned him to his pillows. He had injured his back in spasm like that some weeks ago. I held him until the coughing subsided. When I let him go, he wrapped his arms around me and buried his face into my chest, whimpering.

“I can’t do this anymore,” he said. “I don’t want to. I can’t do this, Afsar. I’m in pain and I’m tired. It hurts so much.” He shook as he spoke and I knew he was crying in my arms.

I wanted to shake his trembling body by its shoulders, to plead and beg him to try, to continue, to not leave me behind. I thought about all the angry letters I had written to him, to the medical community, to God, to myself. I swallowed the feeling rising up my gullet and held him tighter. I kissed his head and rubbed circles into his back.

I let go when he stopped shaking, and he eased himself back into his pillows. I made to get back to my chair, but Saleem placed a hand on my arm.

“I’m doing the right thing,” he said.

Before I could stop myself, I unclenched my jaw and turned to face him. “Who is it right for?”

Saleem took his hand away. “We are not having this conversation again,” he said, his tone venomous. “I’m dying anyway!”

Memories of arguments we had had over the years–many bitter, some that had almost ruined our friendship–surged through my mind. There was no time.

“You’re right,” I said, my voice small.

Saleem sighed. Then he gave me a small, sad smile. “You will be there, won’t you?”

Somehow I had never thought this would actually happen. I had never planned for that dreadful moment, never thought that I might have to watch. “I…”

“You’d leave me when I need you?”

“But Salma…” It was a time for the two of them to be alone.

“I need you, too,” he said. “You’ve been by my side for every big decision I’ve ever taken. Stay. Please.”

I swallowed and nodded.

“Any way it happens, I’m about to die soon. Any way it happens, it will hurt you. That breaks my heart. I’m sorry, Afsar.”

The sound of my name hung in the air, the final note of a sad symphony. My mind stretched into the past, replaying moments I regretted, moments I cherished, things I should have said, and things I should have left unsaid. I scrambled for words to share with Saleem, my friend, who was dying in front of my eyes. I had always been able to trap him with an intriguing conversation. I wanted to start an endless dialogue with him and perhaps distract him from his own death.

The door swung open and a bald man wearing a white lab coat walked in, wheeling an empty wheelchair. Behind him was Salma, her hair back in its bun. I was keenly aware of each thud of my heart as it crept towards unfathomable loss. I wanted to slow it down. Or stop it. But it was time.

*

Salma wheeled Saleem down the corridor, the bald man beside her. I followed a few paces behind them. We shuffled into an empty waiting area with plastic benches and fluorescent lighting. A woman, also in a white coat, was waiting for us there. She gestured for Salma and me to take a seat. Salma stiffened. The woman, noticing the hesitation, placed an arm on Salma’s shoulder and gave her a reassuring smile. There was some final paperwork Saleem had to sign off on, and he had to do it alone. We had been briefed about the process so many times that I could hear the phrase ‘standard procedure’ echoing inside my skull.

Salma let the woman take over Saleem’s wheelchair. She and I took a seat. Saleem turned around to give us a small wave as he was taken out of the waiting area, his mouth a straight line. She returned the wave with an encouraging nod and I lifted my hand up in farewell.

There was nobody else there. My mind wandered, desperate to latch on to something as we waited. The flat-screen TV hung over our heads showed some singing competition on mute. I played with a hangnail until it bled, chewed on my bottom lip, ripping off small pieces of skin, and counted the leaves on a potted plant in the corner. My stomach churned. I gripped my knees to keep my hands from shaking. The silence in the room was viscous, the oppressive stillness before a downpour.

I could tell Salma was watching me. I heard her take a deep breath.

“I’m sorry,” she said to me.

I didn’t look at her.

She paused for a moment. “I’m sorry about yesterday.”

I turned to face her. She was crying.

“I didn’t mean it…” she said. “I didn’t–oh, Afsar–I didn’t. I swear. What I said about family… You are his family. Saleem loves you so much, and I know you love him. I was wrong to tell you to stay away. You–you’re my family, too. We need you. Afsar. I’m sorry.”

I bowed my head. I didn’t know what to say.

The woman in the white coat returned.

“The paperwork is complete,” she said. I marveled at her businesslike expression. “You may visit him in suite 4A. Please note that a nurse will be present in the room throughout. That is standard procedure. All the best.” Then she left.

Gathering herself, Salma took a deep breath. “I would like to spend some time alone with him,” she said.

“You don’t need my permission.”

She nodded and stood up. “I have something for you.”

She began to pull off one of the many rings on her left hand.

“What are you–” But she was already pressing it into my palm. It was simple band, golden, unadorned. I knew it well.

“But it’s yours,” I said, trying to return it to her. She shook her head.

“It’s–it’s from the both of us. And besides,” said Salma, with a small smile, “you wore it first.”

She left the waiting room. I stared at the ring in my palm, my mind transported to a hot Sunday decades ago when a young Saleem had dragged me and my dainty hands to the gold market. Numb, I slipped it on my little finger.

I watched the clock on the far wall, certain that I could hear it ticking from where I was sitting. Five unbearable minutes went by. I thought about leaving. Saleem had Salma. But I had said I would be there for him. Another five minutes. Had I missed some instructions? Would I be told when I was supposed to go into the suite? Had I failed to catch a signal that Salma didn’t actually want me there?

I got up to start pacing when a man with a clipboard walked in.

“Suite 4A?” he said, looking up from his clipboard just long enough to see me nod. “You can go in now.

*

Suite 4A was airy and bright. Saleem was in bed with his arm around Salma who was curled up beside him with her head on his chest and her eyes closed. Saleem looked drowsily at me as I entered.

“Afsar,” he said. It was barely a whisper. He gestured to a chair standing right by the bed. “I did it.”

My breath caught in my chest. I was both shocked that he had actually gone through with it, and grateful that I hadn’t had to see him take those pills. I held his free hand. He thumbed the ring Salma had given me and smiled.

“I hope you keep it around,” he said. He was starting to slur.

“Always,” I said.

“I had it engraved.”

Salma buried her face deeper into his chest. She was crying. He stroked her hair and kissed her on her forehead.

“Thank you,” he said to her, “for making my life as good as it was.”

He turned to me. “And thank you,” he said, “for a lifetime of friendship.”

The lump in my throat was back. “Always,” I croaked.

“I’m going to close my eyes now.”

Silence descended on the room. The late afternoon sun slanted through the window and tinted everything orange. For what felt like hours, I stared at Saleem’s chest as it took longer to rise and fall each time. Then his grip on my hand slackened.

“Saleem?” I said. He was gone.

The attending nurse sad something, but I wasn’t listening. I felt as if I had been torn in half, as if a hot, searing hole had opened up in my chest. I wanted to claw back time, snatch back the seconds and return to when he had been right there, tightly holding my hand. I wanted to grab him and shake him until he opened his eyes and confessed that it was all a joke. I wanted to rage and scream and break things instead of confront the enormity of the fact that he was no longer in my life, that he would not be in it tomorrow, nor for every tomorrow to come.

I continued to hold his hand, tracing its veins and circling the knuckles with my finger. I did that for as long as I could bear and then I kissed it and arranged it beside his body. I did not look at Salma – I could not bear to.

Instead, I pulled off the ring and turned it sideways. There were three words engraved inside. ‘See you later,’ it said. Unlike me, Saleem did not believe–had not believed—in a later. I began to cry.


Asad can be reached via his email, asadzaidi93@gmail.com