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.

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.

 

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

 

Arbroath by Hannah Tougher

Hannah Tougher is currently working towards her MLitt in Creative Writing at the University of Stirling. She writes short stories, flash fiction, and occasionally screenplays.

 


 

Arbroath

 

She was a beach. That’s what she was.

Alison felt her jacket pocket for her cigarettes and then remembered she’d quit. She wondered how long that would last in this back of beyond seaside town. Already she was sick of the small, squashed streets and the smell of smoked fish that clogged the air. She closed her eyes and then opened them again to the faint glimpse of morning-pink light that curved around the dark, heavy clouds. Almost as dark as the sea below.

But she was the beach and not the sea. The sea did its own thing and the beach just waited for the next wave to hit. That’s what she was doing with this community engagement job she’d somehow managed to land, even though she had no idea how to promote public art to kids. And then there was Jay coming up from Glasgow to move into the flat. She couldn’t quite remember how that had been decided, but here she was, freezing her arse off among the seaweed and the sickening smell. Waiting.

She watched a dog scamper in and out of the frothing water with a figure she supposed was its owner: a man wrapped tightly in a black coat, hands in pockets and hat pulled down over his ears, allowing the sea air as little contact with his skin as possible. He walked with his head down, seeing nothing, his feet leaving the same trail of footprints they’d probably left countless mornings before.

An old woman sat down beside Alison. She’d walked right past an empty bench to settle with a few groans and sighs on this one. Alison shifted to the edge. How could she contemplate what an unfortunate life that man might have with this huddled woman sitting so close? How could she summon the guilt she should be feeling at the fact she was utterly unprepared for work on Monday or that she had been wandering around this town for two weeks now, had watched the sea and the changing colours of the sky, and hadn’t once picked up brush and paint? All she could focus on now was this old woman taking up more than her fair share of the bench.

*

There was someone on her bench. Aud had never had to share her bench before, not at this time in the morning anyway.

Well, never mind. She wasn’t about to change the workings of her day just because this bright-haired young thing was sitting where she wasn’t supposed to be.

It was a fine morning, really. Brisk, Robert would say. There was a chill knocking about in the wind. She rubbed her hands. She’d forgotten her gloves again but never mind. She watched the dark waves roll towards her, listened to the gulls and to the water break on the shore, and tried to breathe deeply, finding a rhythm in it, in the back and forth, in the cold that filled her lungs.

After a few moments, she reached for her handbag and felt inside for her sherbet strawberries. Oh, but bother! She’d forgotten to buy some more. She dug into the dark corners and crevices of her bag just in case. It wasn’t a proper morning on the beach without an intake of fresh sea air and the taste of a sherbet strawberry. But her stiff fingers discovered only a used hankie and a scattering of rough crumbs beneath her glasses and purse.

They were his thing, sherbet strawberries. And so naturally in these past five years they had become her thing. She’d never enjoyed the way they scraped along her throat. She made do with staring out at the restless water instead.

She liked looking at the sea. Even when she wasn’t sitting by it she could see it. It tugged back and forth in her head. Although it was not always this stretch of the North she saw, but the edge of the water that had lapped around Leirvik. She could place herself by the deep fjords or by the small bay their village hugged, at the wharf where her father’s boat, Silje-Therese, had sat snug amongst the rows of white masts, its green paint flaked and peeling. The water had been the darkest of blues, almost black in the dim-lit winters. These days she kept dreaming of that round patch of cold sea.

She wondered if it was time to step on a boat or plane and take off across the water back home. She wanted again the smells: her father’s leafy tobacco, her mother’s cooking. Or the sound of the bells that led them down to the small church on a crisp Sunday morning. She wanted to give in to the memories that were bobbing up inside her but how could she go back? Robert was here even if he wasn’t. How could she have forgotten those sherbet strawberries?

The bright red hair of the young woman beside her caught Aud’s eye. It was almost as red as a sherbet strawberry. Well, not quite. There was a flash of reflected light when the girl tucked those free-flowing locks behind a well-pierced ear. What a thing, all those studs curving from the lobe all the way around. And it was the way the girl sat, slouched with her legs stretched out, so casually, so certain, like she owned the bench or the whole town even. She certainly wasn’t troubled by ghosts and dreams and sands that shifted beneath the feet. What a thing.

*

She watched the wind nudge at dark piles of seaweed on the beach. It had to be the worst smell known to man, seaweed. Jay had dragged her out for sushi once and she’d simply spat it back out onto the plate, ignoring his look of disgust. She stood by that reaction, though. Never again.

The woman was shifting around and fidgeting. Alison watched her dig deep into her bag for a few minutes. She wasn’t trying to stare but it was hard not to notice the flash of the woman’s ring. An engagement ring. It was massive and swirled over most of her veiny finger, covering even the wedding band. It looked like the shell of a snail, curving in on itself in a trail of diamonds. It was clearly worth a few bob.

What a pitiful thing Steve had given her in comparison. It was still tucked away somewhere, that ring, that tiny, diamond-shaped diamond, in amongst the clutter and boxes she’d packed into her shitty Ford Escort. She hadn’t thought of Jay ever finding it. But what if he did? By now he’d be on his way up from Glasgow with his own stacks of secrets. She didn’t want to unpack those. She just wanted to hold onto her own and there wasn’t anything in it, although Jay would never believe that. She just liked to keep a hold of things was all. All her life, she’d been a collection of odds and ends.

Alison looked again at the old woman and wondered what it would be like to wear a ring so large, so heavy, so definite. It must hold you in place, a ring like that. The woman gave a sharp tut and stopped rummaging in her bag. Alison watched her fold her hands and cross her ankles. She sat still now and straight, a figurehead protruding from the bench, and the wind gathered up strands of her grey hair. She had eyes much bluer than the sky but not quite as dark as the sea. Rooted. That’s what she was.

*

The girl kept looking at her. It was disconcerting. She was pierced on the corner of her eyebrow as well and had very sharp features; she was like a bird that was trying to peek over and peck into her thoughts. Aud realised she was the one staring now, distracted by the girl tapping her red painted nails against her jacket pocket. She brought her gaze down to her hands and tried to keep her mind still.

Oh, but her hands were cold in this chill. She tucked them into her sleeves. How could this girl be sitting in such a thin jacket? She wasn’t dressed for the October weather at all, with rips and tears in her jeans and her neck and cleavage all exposed. Well.

Mind you, Robert had always teased her for her sensitivity to cold. You’re Norwegian, he’d exclaim, like it was an answer to everything: to why she should enjoy a dark, Scottish winter; to why she might not find his jokes funny; to why she could definitely manage another drink.

The first winter she’d ever spent with him had been her first in Scotland. It was 1963. They’d been snowed in, trapped in the National Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh where they worked. He’d had no intention whatsoever of trying to escape as they all sat huddled amongst the Egyptian statues trying to imagine a warmer climate. He’d just produced an old, battered hip flask full of whisky and passed it around. Go on, he’d said to her when she’d shaken her head. You’re Norwegian.

She’d been twenty then, probably not much younger than the girl next to her. Aud didn’t think this girl was the kind to get swept up in a winter romance and marry after only six months. She seemed hard, independent at least. Maybe she didn’t even like men. She had the air of a wanderer about her and wouldn’t that be nice. Tied to no place and no one. Aud looked out at the water and tried to imagine herself in the midst of those tossing waves with nothing but the wind behind her pushing her farther out to sea.

*

She’d been sitting here for longer than she meant. Jay would be here soon and she had so much to do. There was no food and really she should cook. That was the thing to do, right? See in the new flat and the new life that was better put together. Had she ever cooked for him? It was getting cold, but still Alison stayed where she was. The guy with the dog had long since wandered off. It was just her and the old woman and the wide sea. The chatter of the waves was soothing in its way. There was even a happy clamour in the conversation of the gulls. Maybe if she came here every morning before work, before a sit-down breakfast with Jay, she could manage. If she inhaled that sea air and let her mind drift on the grey tides, she could find a way to get on with everything that came after.

Maybe that’s what this woman did. She probably had her whole day planned out. It would begin with a healthy breakfast. She’d read the People’s Friend and then she’d take a moment to herself on this beach to breathe away from her husband’s pipe and his rants at the television. She’d look after the grandchildren until tea time. She’d impart some long-held wisdom or some handed-down story before the parents came to collect them. Maybe she’d tell them about the heirloom she carried on her finger. Every move she made through the day would be so deeply ingrained–impossible to give up.

*

She should be getting on her way. She never ended up staying for long and her back was bothering her. She was silly for even contemplating travelling all the way back to Leirvik at her age. If only she had the ability to sit comfortably on a bench like she owned it and not fall victim to the cold.

She had been plucking carelessly at a thread on her jacket sleeve. It had been coming loose and Aud had thought to remove it entirely but now it was stuck. She pulled harder but nothing. She’d have to walk home now with this length of thread hanging from her. Maybe she should take a leaf out of this girl’s book and start ripping at her clothes willy-nilly. Expose her knees to the elements. Oh dear no. No. If she were this girl, with her bright red hair and youthful figure, she’d wear long swishing dresses. She used to have a midnight-blue one. She’d loved the feel of the satin against her skin. But it wouldn’t have been to this girl’s tastes. Too tame, perhaps. Too girly. Not enough tears.

She pulled harder on the thread and it tore from her sleeve, leaving a neat rip in the stitching.

*

She bit her nails knowing she should stop. It was the lack of cigarettes that had forced this habit on her. It was nerves and she was ridiculous. If Jay were here he’d tell her to stop. She’d buy some wine, a good bottle that cost more than a fiver.

She heard a slight jingle and a patter and turned to see a dog trotting towards her. It was a Lab: golden but the sea water had darkened and matted its coat. It looked like the dog that had wandered by with the black-coated guy from earlier. Alison twisted around but there was nobody in sight.

*

A dog padded up to the bench. It was soaked and bedraggled and it dropped a ball right on the ground between her and the girl. Where was its owner? Aud thought of the days when dogs roamed the streets freely but such things were no longer acceptable. She and Robert had always been shooing away strays from their garden when they first moved here. She’d never told him that she used to leave out scraps of meat and cheese to draw them in.

The dog wagged its tail and looked at her with its wet, brown eyes. It seemed confused by her lack of enthusiasm for the ball it had brought.

The girl reached down and picked it up.

*

She reached for the tennis ball the dog had placed at her feet. She’d always wanted a dog. She supposed the guy must be around somewhere but in the meantime, why not? She threw it back onto the stretch of grass behind her. It didn’t go as far as she’d envisioned. Had she just pulled a muscle in her arm? God, that was pathetic.

Her hands were dripping in slime and dog slebbers. She wiped them on her jacket, leaving a damp mark. The ball had been squidgy and sodden and she regretted the action entirely. She should leave other people’s dogs to themselves and stop interfering. Maybe she and Jay should get their own. But that was probably a step too far and she wouldn’t be the one to suggest it. Better to wait and see.

*

She watched the dog race after the ball, full speed, and focused on that thing alone. She wished she could’ve been the one to throw it, to just reach for the ball and take it without hesitation. She’d always wanted a dog but her father had refused, of course, in that decidedly quiet way he’d had that allowed for no discussion, and Robert had been allergic. So that was that.

Aud stood, feeling the stiffness in her legs and back. She clutched her handbag tight in her cold hands and made her way back along the path towards the High Street. She should go to the shops before heading home. She needed to buy sherbet strawberries for tomorrow.

*

She watched the dog bound along, ball in mouth, looking for someone else to play with. It ran in zigzags, towards the sea and then back again. It had forgotten her entirely.


Hannah can be reached via her Twitter, @hmtougher.

Notes and Addendum by Jenny Wu

Jenny Wu is currently working toward an MFA at Washington University in St. Louis, where she edits The Spectacle literary magazine. Recently, some of her fiction was selected for WTAW’s Features Chapbook Series and, on another occasion, shortlisted for the Dzanc Books Prize for Fiction.

 


 

Notes and Addendum

 

There was one who called herself a doctor on the expedition. I distrusted her right away. “You are not a doctor,” I said. We were now several months into the expedition, but I had not bothered to study her when we started out. Likewise, I have not mentioned her before because I found her trivial and typical of her kind. “You are a mystic,” I said. “Just admit it.” We were walking through a night market in the center of the capital; on both sides of the street colonial edifices with eighteen bays cast their twitching lights like fishermen’s nets onto the rubble.

Perhaps it was not the right time to say such a thing. We were trying to enjoy our night off. Amidst nocturnal peoples selling medicinal herbs like astragalus–slightly toxic, with giant hairy tuberous roots rolling off the stands despite not being round. Often the locals went to barber shops after dinner; visited massage parlors at three in the morning; bought a crate of oranges at midnight. Darkness was something expelled into the atmosphere. On the ground, poverty and its fluorescent reflections; the barber shop employees were all family members, large extended families always hanging around, drinking tea out of paper cups; and whose children were these playing poker? A man and a woman shivered in the cold, on the steps of a bar where workers on either side of the steps were rolling a fried dough balloon–a local favorite. They slapped the sphere of dough in the oil and nudged it with long, thin reeds until an air-pocket rose. They used the reeds–one in each hand–to roll the dough, while the bubble expanded, glistening with oil. So we were out walking in the middle of the night. They stared as I walked past, as if telling me to go to bed, as if simple foot-traffic laws could direct me like the changing chords of a jazz improvisation. Stop. Go. Let other people pass on your left. Do not flash your camera in their eyes. They want to be away from home but they want privacy.

The shorter the street, it seemed, the shorter the street name. Maybe the proportion had to do with the printing of the map. Some were horrifyingly long words, emblazoned on streets that careened off the edge of the paper, made you think the street would take your whole expedition into the Parcae.

Overhead, a white solarium with casement windows and slick tile walls, a ghostly light within. Four hangers arranged in a square, three jean shirts and a pair of jean pants, each piece a different shade of blue. Apartments with no right angles, the balconies turned into rooms with shabby roofs–in other words, rooms with glass doors; in other words, lean-tos suspended in the air. A drove of grey laughing-thrushes diving in from the north. We went to a shop to get our hair washed. Our hair had not been washed in a week and it was almost too enjoyable. The young girl, younger than me, began to tell me the story of her birth, how her parents abandoned her at an orphanage, as she lathered my hair. I would rather have done it myself. But in this city there were no membranes separating one person from the next. They looked inside your shirt when measuring you for clothes. They asked for advice on their bowels. Death and illness did not frighten them.

We scientists were all wearing hiking boots, which was somewhat conspicuous. But that was the only difference. We did not make trouble for the locals. We wore hooked scarves sewn into hoods with neck wrappings over our clean hair, since, in this city, most women on the street wore these. We were cold nevertheless; temperatures dropped below zero after sunset. That night I was drawn to the colonnade’s yellow light, having tricked myself into believing it might be warm.

According to this mystic, I was nothing more than a mouthpiece for my expensive education. I will admit, when I was younger, I knew nothing. By the end of my schooling, though, I had read extensively even outside of my own scientific field and continued to read extensively. By flashlight I read poetry and philosophy in three languages. She mocked me. She admitted to having no formal training, but claimed she had saved more lives than your average doctor. She was middle aged–more “life experience.” Later on, before I had even said anything, she pointed to an old couple inside an illuminated jewelry shop; they were sitting in the back on those fake leather swiveling stools, examining some jewel in the display case with their elbows on the glass, wearing winter coats. The mystic said she had sensed last night, while the rest of us were sleeping, that they were going to have a heart attack, that she had rushed over to save them.

Them?” I said. “Both of them? One heart attack or two? Where? Where did you rush to?”

She said nothing.

Them?” I repeated. I, for one, had never seen these people before.

The mystic pulled up her messaline sleeve, revealing a bracelet. “They bought me this bracelet in gratitude,” she said.

Doubtful, though the bracelet did look like something that would be sold in this city; it was a bit gaudy.

We had been eating cakes with crushed almond powder mixed in under an awning. It had started raining heavily. A restaurant worker was taking a bunch of pots to the back alley for scrubbing. She poured boiling water over an empty soup bowl, over her fingers, rubbing their leathery prints together to remove the oil. She began to explain to me the perplexities of human anatomy. The food here–the tubers–when you ate them your whole body itched, but they tasted so good, especially with salt…

When the heavy rain on the street subsided, we could hear street musicians.

*

In the daylight we each carried binoculars and a slide projector. The villagers of S– were friendly to our expedition despite the politics–first comes the scientific exploratory expedition, then come the army and tanks, as is always the case. I glimpsed the top of their heads from afar, in the ruins. Through one arch I saw a wall with another arch; through this hole I saw a vague figure the color of flesh. It ambled and swayed amidst oblong yellow flowers with dark, fecal bulbs sprouting from their heads, plants with red stalks, blackberries choking an old sawed tree with antler branches, vines and long green beans twirling overhead, weeds like white hairs stomped flat on the ground, and an array of snake skins and milk teeth. The mystic spoke of the field as being otherworldly, occult, spirited, eastern or easterly, of a man falling into the ground never to be found again. But I understood immediately that she was talking about the Greek philosopher Thales, who while walking, staring into the sky, fell into a well–in other words, while staring at air was consumed by water. I was annoyed that I understood this. I was frightened too. The field was quiet so our thoughts were loud.

Three of us explored the foliage. I would rather have been anywhere else–alone under a tree, for instance, getting started on the mandatory report. Instead, a persistent drone of insects. Standing by a stream, feet getting wet and cold. I had the feeling I was being watched. The mystic bent over suddenly.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m tying my shoe.”

After rain, the colors intensified, time passed slowly. The other two were talking but I couldn’t understand what they were saying. The mystic led me to the ruins–to look at something painted on the menhirs, or so she said. Again, that childhood habit–climbing on stones to prove you are not afraid of heights. Walking along the top of a stone wall the height of two men, one foot in front of the other; there was a gap in the wall. The mystic said she had been up here many times; she knew the structure of the ruins; she knew where to place her feet. She leapt effortlessly over the gap. She motioned for me to leap. I couldn’t. She held out her hand for me to shakingly take; she looked so far away; besides, I didn’t want to take her hand.

Outside the village of K– we sat around a small fire boiling tin cans. The cartographer rolled some tobacco and another expedition member, the conservationist, struck a match for him. The mystic was off to the side performing a bloodletting on a villager who had smelled our lunch and ventured into the field. Distracted by this spectacle, the two lingered with the match too long and the cigarette went up in flames like a candle. The cartographer shook it and embers fell to the dark wet ground. The conservationist pointed at the papers on my lap–the beginnings of my report. “I just finished mine.”

“You’re the first one to finish his report,” the cartographer said to him. Some of us who went on these kinds of expeditions were known to procrastinate for months after we got home. “Let me give you a gift of congratulation,” he said. Took out a small thing.

The conservationist suddenly panicked, leaned away. “No! Keep it! I don’t want your things!”

The cartographer rummaged through his bag. “Just a small thing I picked up. Thought you would like it.”

The conservationist grunted. He was drinking a soup made from berries, with a medicinal smell.

“Here is a photograph of that man who refused to be photographed,” said the cartographer, trying to give it.

“Mm!” said the conservationist, pushing his hand away.

“And here,” I said, retrieving another bulging envelope from the cartographer’s bag, “are the two-hundred Polaroid photos of a black sky that you took the other night.”

“Because I was trying to capture the lightning.”

“You were very drunk.”

The mystic came over to sit beside me. We spoke about our credos. “Once,” she said, “I was asked to read the palm of a man from the north who was visiting my city on business. His palm revealed to me that at the age of fifty a great tragedy would befall him.”

“What do you tell them,” the conservationist asked, strumming a lap dulcimer, “when the news is bad?”

“I tell them the truth,” said the mystic. “It does them no good to lie.”

“Do they get angry at you?”

“In fact, this man did not,” said the mystic. “What happened was this: the year he was supposed to turn fifty, one day in the spring I received an international call from him to meet me for tea; a few days later he flew all the way from another country to meet me. His twin had died.”

I said, “Ah, so the tragedies you predict are unspecific.”

She said, “Twins, you know. They have the same palms.”

The villager told us how to make it over the summit by sunset. His village was located on a crag that overlooked a treeless section of the mountain whose inner rock layers were showing, the orange colossus broken and lying at the bottom of the drop. The road ran dangerously close to the edge. The people in this region fetched their water from a nearby stream. Pleasure to see clear water slopping over the half-buried rocks–you could lie belly-down on a flat rock and drink from the green and black current. Upstream, in the middle of the rushing waters, was a woman squatting on a rock, washing her clothes.

Uphill the whole way and, mid-ascent, out came the peasants selling their wares–they charred sardines on sticks atop an open coal fire. A pile of skewered sardines sat raw on the side, their bluish-white scales still wet and glistening. Other vendors had skewered some sort of long-necked bird. In the fire these birds’ bodies turned gray and brown, their blue innards peering through transparent breasts, while their heads reddened and bulged. Some sellers had whole eggs boiling in metal pots, plates of red chili powder at their feet, their children crouched beside basins of live fish. A man smoking a waterpipe made from a stack of bottomless tin cans slumped on a footstool, swarmed by red-faced cockerels. Women sweeping with hand brooms. A single yellow monkey scoured the hillside for fruit, and, when it found some, turned and stared suspiciously at everyone as it ate. For half a kilometer beside the stream the mountain economy was concentrated where travelers passed by. The women sold charred meat.

The children sold flowers. The very small children sold pebbles. These were mountain people; despite the cold they sit outside.

We could no longer understand their language. For the rest of the day we communicated with rudimentary gestures. Went up the mountain and took a detour, picked up a stone from the grass, weighed it in my hand, and held onto it.

“Who needs to piss? Show of hands… Alright, we’re taking a detour.” The men unzipped their pants and pissed in the dirt, off the cliff.

“Would it be wrong to call us a choir?” They stood in a line, shoulder to shoulder, facing the abyss.

“I’ve heard that saying used,” said another.

“Next time we have to piss we’ll call it ‘going to sing,’” they chuckled.

I waded alone through brambles, sometimes cutting my own way through the entangled branches with my knife. I came this way because I wanted to–there was no other reason. Eventually I came down on another side of the mountain, evergreen trees and white twiggy underbrush: a vast expanse of land flanking a crude road stretching as far as the eye could see. Maybe I beat the expedition here; they should be coming up the road any time now. The road was gray gravel pounded into flat scales. It looked new, with no weeds between the stones and no cart ruts to either side. I had to criticize, however, the irrigation practices of these peoples; the deforestation; the roads, like the manmade ponds, partitioned with stone slabs that disrupted runoff. Water and land must have, I would argue, a natural meeting point. The trees on each side grew dense and green like spears over the land, gradually steepening into the sides of the mountains that contained them like a bowl, and the sky dropping–cloudless–in every direction like a dome. I continued west. Behind me, the gravel disappeared into the green hills, and I noticed every so often there was a big stone on the side of the road. As I walked on I realized that someone, for some reason, had been marking the distances on the road.

Wherever the trees stopped growing, the patch of land was left destitute and foreboding. Pockmarked landscape with cairns. Upon closer inspection, some of the cairns were mausoleums hidden under grass. At least five mausoleums in a jagged line, all facing the road. Were they, I wondered, a family? Or strangers who met only after death? Sitting on the roadside writing this entry, I looked at their land and saw that they could grow pears, walnuts, chestnuts, wild honey. There was even evidence that these crops had grown here before. There ought to be some goats in the mountains. The threat of tigers? After all, tigers factor into their paranoid superstition: on the first day of the fifth month, I was told, each person must sleep alone. Stay hidden while the ghosts and tigers prowl the yard, they said…and if a villager is sick, they pray to the tiger head.

*

Our first night in the countryside. Awake due to some indigestion. Snuck out and went into the field and took a night-photograph. It turned out blurry. The kitchens and outhouses in this region were communal; both types of mudbrick houses clumped together on the periphery of the village. There were giant crystals of salt on the road; they gleamed in the moonlight, winding down toward the houses.

Woke up in the morning to caterpillars and white butterflies. Found all sorts of animals in the garden: the usual gray rabbit, the locals gestured–now twice its original size–then a Maltese cat, then a prickly hedgehog, then an orange-and-black fox whose tail I snuck up behind, whose fur was rustling, who looked at me suddenly over his shoulder. As though our villa had become the setting of a fairy story.

The mystic came outside, stretching, and said, “It feels like we’ve lived here all our lives, doesn’t it?”

That day we found a village where they spoke our language; stayed there, visited homes, tasted their tea, even though the people were not particularly pleasant. The men in this village were gamblers. Subsistence farmers: grow some sprouts, eat them, and gamble. Any money in the village was locked in drawers, away from the prying hands of the women.

Next was a house with old man on the floor. Perhaps it was the age of the man, his refusal to present himself, refusal sit up straight, even when there were people observing him. He had coarse black and gray hair knotted in the back, but strands around the temples seemed to have been torn out of the knot and were standing on end. He had no eyebrows–probably from age–but his brow was permanently raised, his mouth permanently pursed in a horizontal line. His eyes stared at nothing, two pinpricks. Extremely long ears. He was wearing tweed trousers, dark gray, and a ramie collared shirt underneath a sweater in the faintest shade of lavender imaginable. He was resting on one elbow, the hand on his stomach, the other at an odd angle on an old quilt. The old quilts were all over the floor, gray bundles with the occasional square of city-colors. Not a scrap of furniture. “It’s been gambled away, so be careful,” said the mystic. “That old man sees that you have money on you.” Where the blankets did not reach there was cardboard taped to the floor and the corners of the wall with yellowed translucent packaging tape. The walls were covered in pages from an atlas, maps of the same area of land with different routes marked in red, showing different sized portions of the ocean. Above them, magazine clippings showing the latest styles of cassimere, voile, damask, muslin… all the pages pasted perfectly straight, not a slapdash effort. The paint on the windows was flaking; there were thin pages of some book printed with gray ink covering the window jambs. On the sill, strangely, two pieces of porcelain; they looked like soap dishes with dirt in them, a shriveled stem and some excavated roots still visible in one. On the wall–on top of the atlas pages, beside the magazine clippings–a colorful flower print, an ultramarine background with tricolored peonies and a golden border. Pasted on top of that, as though the larger flower print was a frame, a blown-up image of paper money–a bluish note with the profiles of the heads of state and everything. Was this decoration? The mystic explained. “They paste any paper they can find on the walls for insulation and because it looks better than the blank wall underneath. Every so often they need new paper because the existing layer turns black.”

An old woman hobbled into the room and told a story of their relative–pointing at the seated man–“his brother.” We listened to her story; we watched her hobbling around holding her wet laundry in a knot, as though she did not know where to put it. She was the shortest person I had ever seen in my life. “His brother,” she said, “gambled the entire family’s savings; his mother and father starved, some of the younger ones starved to death. He was the only one who took pity on this brother; the rest had planned to tie him to the bed and lock him in a back room for the rest of his life. Ah, I’m telling a story that’s fifty years old.”

“Whose brother?” the old man suddenly said.

Your brother,” the old woman said. “This idiot”–her index finger shaking–“brought his brother to come live with us, eat our food, and gave him a portion of our land and even a share of his ensete trees, livestock, and our business. He loved his brother so much, you know. They were closest in age. They went everywhere together, did everything together. When his brother got whipped in the yard he would cry, cry, cry for him. And the first thing he did was destroy our business. The fruit on the trees? The goat? All gone. Then he stole everything of value in our house. I set up traps for him and even caught him with my own eyes. Still this idiot took pity on him.” She set her wet shirt on the windowsill. “Our village has been debased by these men. Do you know how our women make a living? They sell rocks to travelers. Well. You want to guess what this man’s brother did after all that? You’ll never guess what happened then.” She cackled; she showed her silver teeth. “Then he disappeared!”

We spoke at length with local experts. Governments would be alerted. Aid would be sent to this village, preferably in the form of microcredit. We were to leave the village through a narrow mountain pass; from a distance we saw the women lined up on both sides. As we entered the pass a child approached–young, naked, protruding navel. He was holding something in his hand. A ruddy volcanic rock. The women, too, were selling stones–polished limestone bracelets, heavy pendants, crude sculptures. Some of them had stands, and some were sitting on threadbare blankets with the rocks spread before them. They clamored over each other, describing the rocks as artifacts unique to the region, that such-and-such rocks were blessed by a goddess. One of the rock sellers smiled at me. I realized that for however many months we had been traveling, I had not seen a single local smile. The girl was pale and fat and sleepy, but–was I mistaken?–she had smiled. I approached her without confidence; I approached her politely; I bought a rock. I felt oafish, conspicuous.

“You saw the village where I live?” she asked.

“I was just there,” I said.

“Why do travelers prefer to come in winter?” she asked. “In the summer no one comes.”

“A lot of travelers pass through in the winter?”

“Every three days or so, a group passes through.”

“Have you ever considered leaving with them?” I regretted asking; I could not make any promises.

But she shook her head. “I’ve never thought to leave my family. Or to be alone. Where would I go anyway?”

I told her I’d lived on my own for five years, since I was fifteen.

“We’re the same age then,” she said.

I didn’t know what to say; I wondered who was more surprised. So I told her, “It’s nice to be on your own. But being alone causes you to form all sorts of weird rituals.”

“Like what?” she asked.

“Oh, I don’t know… I can’t think of any off the top of my head.”

“You’re so brave,” she said.

Suppose I moved to this village and married this girl? Immediately following this thought I was seized by dread and tremors. I didn’t even know if this girl liked women. I looked up and down the mountainsides; their immensity dizzied me; for a moment I forgot which way we were walking, which way we were coming from.

“That girl,” said the mystic, “is your soul mate.”

Looked back at her over my shoulder; the sun was setting and getting in my eyes. “But I have an expensive education, remember?” I waited for the mystic’s reaction. Getting none, I said, “I doubt she can read.” I had never thought much about marriage, always buried in my studies. And I had no feelings for this girl beside the thought that I ought to…

“She will be very surprised.”

For the first time I looked closely at this mystic’s face. She had a square-shaped face, brown skin, crow’s feet, and black moles. Compared to the average head, hers was relatively small.

“She won’t know why, but she’ll say yes. She’ll never be able to understand why she said yes, but she will think about it much, and she’ll never argue with you.” The mystic seemed utterly convinced by what she was saying. “And day by day you will find yourself more accustomed to the traditions here.”

She embraced me. I patted her on the back. How rare, I thought, that my life should cross paths with the likes of this mystic. There was truly no one like her. She went on to predict that I would spend the rest of my life working with my hands, specifically with wood. We looked around at the trees of the region–aspens.

“I must catch up with the expedition,” the mystic said.

 

 

 

 

When the army and tanks rolled into the region, they were met, in this mountain pass, with a funeral. The funeral happened to be processing in the opposite direction, momentarily blocking the army’s path. The funeral, they learned, was for a young woman scientist who had, five years earlier, married one of the locals but for whom the combination of harsh working conditions and the high elevation proved to be too much. She had overworked herself trying to provide for her wife, a baby-faced woman seen walking in the procession with her head down, weeping tears of unmatched devotion.


Jenny can be found at her website, jennyzw.com.

 

Voyager by Robert McGinty

Robert McGinty works and writes in Edinburgh, where he lives with his wife and son. He was a recipient of a 2016 Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award in the Children’s and Young Adult fiction category. He is currently working on a Young Adult novel called The Dead Men of Pendragon House, as well as occasional articles and stories for his blog-site.

Voyager is a short story about a journey of escape for a space obsessed boy who feels a million miles distant from everything in his world, and his journey out into the universe through the stargate of his imagination.

 


 

Voyager

 

How could he make them understand that his signal took seventeen hours to travel from where he was to where they were?

‘You said you had one yesterday. Show us.’

Giles found himself backed into a corner of the school bike shelter by a crowd of boys from his class. Big Archie, the tallest boy in the year, stood at their head.

‘You haven’t got one, have you?’

Archie held his own mobile phone in front of Giles’s face—a sleek, black rectangle of technology.

‘Everyone else has got one. Are you a freak or something? Are your parents too poor to buy you one?’

They all laughed. They did not understand that their laughter would not reach him for a further seventeen hours.

‘What’s in the bag?’

Giles clutched a white plastic bag with something rather awkward and bulky inside that stuck out of the opening at the top.

‘Voyager 1,’ he said.

He held the bag open for the boys to see and Archie reached in and pulled out the delicate model by the long, latticed arm pointing upwards at him.

‘What the hell is Voyager 1?’ said Archie, turning it over in his hands.

‘A spacecraft,’ said Giles.

There was a sudden crack and the long arm snapped off from the main body of the model.

‘Aw, broke it. Sorry, Spaceman.’

Archie shoved the separate pieces back at Giles. The boys laughed and walked away, leaving him standing alone with the broken model cradled in his arms.

*

Giles did not hear Miss Teather calling at first because his mind was full of space, as it always was.

Sputnik encircled his thoughts, beeping simple messages. Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft streaked across the blue sky of his imagination, and the Eagle landed in the rocky terrain of his fantasies.

‘Giles!’

Miss Teather’s voice jerked him back to Earth, where he discovered that his class was laughing at him.

‘Yes, Miss?’

Miss Teather, with grey bags under her eyes, barely kept the exasperation out of her voice. ‘Are you ready to give your presentation? Come up to the front of the class.’

Giles picked up the plastic bag containing the broken model and made his way between the desks towards the whiteboard, just avoiding the wicked foot Archie stuck out in his path.

‘Do you have something with you to illustrate your subject, Giles?’ asked Miss Teather.

‘Yes, Miss.’

He fumbled awkwardly with the bag and removed the two parts of Voyager 1.

‘What a shame! How did your model get broken?’

Giles could feel Archie staring very hard at him.

‘Dropped it, Miss.’

He held up the long latticework section of plastic struts that had been snapped off.

‘It’s the magnetometer, Miss. I can mend it when I get home.’

Miss Teather nodded patiently.

‘Well, on you go Giles, when you’re ready.’

Giles turned to face the class and twenty-four bored, hostile faces stared back at him.

‘This is Voyager 1,’ he said, holding up the model.

As soon as he started speaking on his subject, he forgot all about those faces, as if they were no longer there. The spacecraft filled his entire field of vision and all he had to do was broadcast the voice that was always talking in his head, set his controls to autopilot and cruise.

The voice told his class about the launch of the space probe Voyager 1 on September 5th, 1977, sent by NASA on a grand tour of the outer planets. It described the main components of the model: the High Gain Antenna Reflector Dish and Sun Sensor; the boom arm that housed the Ultraviolet and Infrared Spectrometer and Radiometer; the Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator; the Micrometeorite Shielding; the Hydrazine Thrusters and the Optical Calibration Target.

It explained how the once-in-two-centuries alignment of the planets had enabled the spacecraft to reach Jupiter; how Voyager had used Jupiter’s gravity to slingshot out to Saturn; and of its numerous discoveries among those far away worlds and moons.

The voice described the golden disc attached to the side of Voyager, with its engraved depictions of two humans, a man and a woman, and set of logical directions to Earth that would provide any curious aliens with a route map to find its makers.

The voice told of the Pale Blue Dot, which was the furthest away picture ever taken of the planet Earth–a tiny living speck engulfed in the blackness of space–and of the vast distances the spacecraft had traveled, and how it had crossed the heliopause in 2012, which is the point where the Sun’s solar winds die away and interstellar space begins, and how in 40,272 AD Voyager 1 would pass within 1.7 light years of AC+793888 in the constellation of Ursa Minor.

Finally, the voice explained that from its current position in space, a message from Voyager 1 took seventeen hours to reach Earth traveling at the speed of light, and that its broadcasts would become fainter and more distant until 2025, when the spacecraft would finally run out of power and stop sending messages home.

And then, as if it too had run out of motive power, the voice stopped talking and Giles saw once again the bored, indifferent faces staring at him.

‘Well,’ said Miss Teather, ‘that was a very…detailed…presentation. Thank you, Giles.’

*

As everyone was leaving the classroom for lunch Miss Teather asked Giles to stay behind.

It was strange being in the empty room with just his teacher and the smell of his classmates hanging in the air. Miss Teather sat behind her desk and looked with a kindly face on him.

‘Is everything quite alright, Giles?’ she asked.

‘Yes, Miss.’

‘I’ve noticed that you don’t play with any of the other boys. Has anything happened between you and them?’

How could he explain to her that he was now so incredibly remote from the other boys that anything they had to say to him took seventeen hours to reach him?

‘Nothing’s happened,’ he said.

Miss Teather was quiet for a moment, just looking at him, as if working out in her mind how to span those millions of miles between teacher and pupil.

‘Would you tell me if anyone was bullying you?’

‘Yes, Miss.’

‘Have you told me the truth of how your model got broken?’

‘Yes, Miss.’

‘Is everything quite alright at home?’

‘Yes, Miss.’

He thought fleetingly of his parents, Phobos and Deimos, circling cold and distant in his mind’s orbit.

Something about his answers seemed to make Miss Teather slowly crumple. She looked very tired again.

‘Go and eat your lunch, Giles.’

‘Yes, Miss.’

She called to him just as he was passing through the classroom door.

‘Thank you for the presentation this morning, Giles. It was very interesting.’

‘Thank you, Miss.’

*

He was orbiting Jupiter with his lunch, sitting under the leafless tree that grew on the patch of playing field furthest from the school. The voices of the other children floated to him on the air like distant messages from mission control.

His blue lunch box lay beside him as he ate a cheese sandwich. As well as sandwiches, it contained an apple, a packet of crisps, a chocolate bar and a carton of blackberry juice, all as artfully and economically packed as any astronaut’s provisions. It was important to be supplied with a carefully balanced nutritional package when so far away from home, circling a massive gas giant.

Giles thought of his home, millions of miles nearer the sun and so much warmer than these frigid wastes of space. He saw his busy bedroom walls with their posters of important satellites and spacecraft–from Sputnik to Mars Rover Curiosity–and the recreations of these machines which he had crafted from modeling sets and which stood on every available surface.

Would he ever return? Was there enough power in his engines to turn from his path and cross the distance back? He did not think so: he had traveled too far already. It was a one-way mission, after all. He wondered if his parents would be angry with him when they found out he had gone on such a journey without their leave, or if they would even notice.

Giles was so absorbed in these far away meditations that he was not aware of Archie until a foot kicked his lunchbox and sent his apple rolling off across the grass like an out of control moon.

A shadow fell over him: he looked up.

‘Did you tell?’ said Archie.

Giles shook his head. ‘No.’

‘What did she want?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Giles, shrugging his shoulders. ‘She just asked me some questions.’

‘What sort of questions, Spaceman?’

‘Just questions.’

Archie suddenly dropped on Giles, shoved him into the dirt at the base of the leafless tree and pinned him under his enormous knees.

‘Did you tell on me?’

Archie’s knees were squeezing so much air from Giles’s lungs that he could barely find the breath to answer: ‘No!’

‘Did you?’

‘No!’

‘Bloody freak.’

With a last vindictive shove at Giles’s head with his spade-like palm, Archie released him and jumped up.

‘Tell on me and you’re dead.’

‘I won’t,’ said Giles.

‘Shut up, Spaceman.’

*

Using Jupiter’s enormous gravitational field, Giles shot himself out on a new trajectory across the empty spaces of the playing fields and away from those distant laughing voices.

Soon he was beyond Saturn and still traveling, his lunchbox with his essential supplies gripped in his hand as he walked and walked. He was covered in dust and tears. His cheek throbbed where Archie’s hand had struck.

But Archie was seventeen hours from him and could not hurt him; he was so impossibly remote from all living things that none could touch him. Giles was on his way to places they could not even imagine, covering distances that seemed impossible to them: he was voyaging alone into an astonishing universe.

At last he reached the heliopause, the boundary of his solar system. The school walls stretched out on either side of him.

Pushing his lunch box to the top of the wall, he scrambled up beside it and sat looking at the distant school building, watching the scurrying dots that played inside its protective embrace—so far away that he could barely even hear their voices.

He turned and dangled his legs over the other side of the wall with his back to the school. Across the fields in front of him ran the main road out of the town, where cars passed continually on their journeys to unknown destinations.

He was at the limits of the solar system, his signal weak, all alone on the boundary of the Sun’s influence—so distant that he could no longer feel any of its warmth touching his heart.

The school bell was ringing and ringing, sending him a message which he had traveled too far to hear. He picked up his lunch box and looked out at the vast reaches of interstellar space stretching out in front of him.

He had a long way to go: he jumped off the wall.


Robert McGinty can be contacted via his Twitter account @robertmcginty1 or through his blog. More of Robert’s work can be found here.

 

The Archaic Smile by KC Murdarasi

KC Murdarasi is a Scottish author based in Glasgow. She studied Ancient History at the University of St Andrews, then worked as a missionary in Albania for a few years before returning to the UK.


 

The Archaic Smile

 

The van doors swung open, revealing the limestone figure, and Nicholas bit his lip to suppress a gasp. One leg in front of the other as if impatient to move, hands clenched into implacable fists, each muscle as perfect as the day it had been carved. Taking in every inch, Nicholas, curator of the Ancient World collection at the Royal Museum, swelled with pride. This was his purchase; he had negotiated it, organised the funds, arranged the transfer. Now here it was. Nicholas’ pale blue eyes burned as he stared at the statue. It didn’t meet Nicholas’ gaze, instead smiling impassively over his head.

“He’s a happy chappie, ain’t he?” said one of the couriers, jolting Nicholas back to the present. He realised he was shivering in his shirt sleeves.

“You’re late,” Nicholas snapped. “You should have been here two hours ago.” The couriers shot each other a look and started to wheel the carefully strapped statue up the ramp into the Royal Museum.

The London sunshine was weak, filtered by layers of cloud—nothing like the fierce sunshine of Greece, but it was welcome after centuries of darkness. One foot in front of the other, the statue entered its new home.

Nicholas led the way through the confusing passages of the museum, his quick steps sharply defined on the hard floors, until they reached the main gallery. In a small, dark room, off to one side, waited an empty plinth.

“Just here, please,” he said. His hands played nervously with his tie clip as he watched the couriers jack the statue to the right level, then painstakingly inch it on to the plinth. Nicholas’ thin frame, a picture of nervous energy, provided a contrast to the solid musculature of the limestone man who stared calmly over his head.

“Zakynthos Kouros,” read one of the men after they had finished. “Is that his name, then?”

“It’s what it is known as,” conceded Nicholas, frowning at the inexactitude. “It is a kouros, a statue of a young man, and it is from Zakynthos. Hence, ‘the Zakynthos Kouros’.”

“Who’s it supposed to be?” asked the other courier.

“No one knows,” said Nicholas. “It was probably a grave monument for a young warrior.”

“Well cheerio, Zak,” said the first man, “Keep smiling!” The two men laughed as they wheeled their platform back out to the van. Nicholas winced. The kouros kept smiling.

The young man in whose memory the kouros had been carved had been dead for some time when the commission was finished. His family, rich and influential, had the brand-new statue installed on the highest point of the island. The warrior’s grieving mother visited often, his other relatives less so. They left small presents, libations, remembrances, but soon the visits stopped and the young warrior was forgotten. The kouros remained, however. Unperturbed by the years he continued smiling to himself until everyone had forgotten why he was there. It didn’t take many generations before the islanders started to believe that his perfect form, larger than life, must represent Zakynthos himself, the legendary founder of the island. The small presents and libations began again, this time accompanied by prayers and requests for blessings from the hero Zakynthos.

Emma, the junior gallery assistant, popped her head into the room.

“Is this him?” she asked, “He’s amazing! You’d never know he was so old.”

Yes, you would, thought Nicholas, if you knew anything about it. He sometimes wished he could be more patient with junior staff like Emma. She had a real inquisitiveness which should be encouraged, but she knew so little that was of any worth. She had a degree in Cultural Studies. Nicholas thought Cultural Studies was the sort of thing people studied if they had no culture of their own, though he had never said this to her.

“Why is he in the side room? Why not in the central gallery?” Emma asked. Nicholas frowned. He had considered this for some time and still wasn’t sure about his decision.

“It’s easier to protect here. It would be preferable to display it in the main gallery, but I can’t take the risk of crowds jostling it.”

Emma nodded distractedly as she walked round the statue, looking it up and down. “There’s something funny about him,” she said. “It’s as if his forearms are on the wrong way. Or his hands are.” She made a fist and looked from her hand to his. “And his face–that funny little smile! Why did they make him smiling? Is he supposed to be a friendly warrior?” She gave a smile of her own to Nicholas. It wasn’t as effective on him as it was on other men, but it still had a thawing effect.

“It’s called the archaic smile,” Nicholas explained. “Early Greek sculptors found it hard to carve the mouth realistically. The solution, they discovered, was to carve little grooves on either side of it, giving the appearance of a smile. The archaic smile disappeared once sculptural technique improved.”

“Shame,” said Emma, “it’s really cute.” She reached up a finger to touch the kouros’ smiling face. Nicholas’s hand shot out, stopping just short of grabbing her wrist.

“Don’t touch it!” he snapped, shocked. “Never touch limestone without gloves. The acid in your fingers will damage the rock.”

Emma backed away, stung. She never seemed to be able to do the right thing where Nicholas was concerned. Nicholas saw that he had shaken her and wanted to apologise. But how could he apologise when he had only stopped her from doing something she should have known better than to do anyway? Instead, he spun on the heel of his shiny brown loafer and hurried off to his office.

The Zakynthos Kouros did not remain alone for long on his elevation on the island. Others arrived. Some were merely small relief sculptures, but others were kouroi like him, standing almost as tall as he did. These were in a new style. Their bronze bodies glowed like warm flesh. Their hair fell in realistic curls and the mouths on the faces of these boy-men had perfect, curved, pouting lips. And yet the islanders remained loyal to their Zakynthos, with his rock-cut, dependable, not-quite-right anatomy, his steady gaze and his cryptic smile; the offerings kept coming. From time to time over the decades an earthquake would shake the island. Some of the lighter bronze statues would fall and need to be propped up again, or repaired, or melted down, but the Zakynthos Kouros stood strong, the lord of the island.

Nicholas hunched over his computer, the light of its screen competing with the failing light of the autumn afternoon. He sighed and ran a hand through his unfashionable hair. More and more he had been feeling that he was not cut out for this job, or perhaps that the job was not cut out for him. At thirty-two he was one of the youngest collection curators the museum had ever had, especially of the prestigious Ancient World collection. Luck may have played a part, but Nicholas knew that his drive, intelligence and perfectionism had taken him this far this quickly. Yet now he found that what he’d achieved was not what he wanted. He was expected to line manage other people, people with no similarity to himself and apparently no sensitivity for the ancient world. He had free reign to display exhibits and design collections, which was his dream, but he was expected to submit reports detailing the educational value and accessibility of his choices. He was in love with the relics of the ancient world but he often felt that his work cheapened them.

Shaking his head, Nicholas pushed the subject out of his mind and went to work on his computer. There was a lot to finalise before the exhibition opened the next morning, and the central exhibit arriving late had not helped. He worked away doggedly at the final details of tour plans and exhibit guides before movement below distracted him. The smoked glass of Nicholas’ office looked down on the gallery, and he could see some of the junior staff near his prize exhibit. They had obviously come from other galleries to see the new purchase. Some of them had gone inside the room, and Nicholas could not see from here whether they were wearing gloves. Quickly saving his work on the computer, he hurried out of his office and down the stairs.

Earthquakes had become a feature of the kouros’ existence on Zakynthos, and he smiled on calmly as they passed him by over the decades and centuries. But the base on which he stood was gradually weakened, and the crevice in the side of the hill which had been there for centuries was gradually widening. Even he was not invulnerable; one day, much like any other, the shaking and rumbling started again, and this time the kouros did not stand strong. Tipped over onto the soft earth, with his fists clenched and his face still set in a smile, he rolled into the crevice. Dirt and debris piled on top of him, hiding him from sight. The islanders wondered what had become of their Zakynthos but, as after all earthquakes, they had more pressing concerns on their minds. The rain set the fresh dirt in the crevice, the grass sprang up, and the kouros was lost.

Down in the gallery, having protected the kouros from ungloved hands for the second time, Nicholas realised he would have to do something more permanent. There were Tensa-barriers in a storeroom. He didn’t like using them but it was obviously necessary–there were currently no glass cases large enough to hold the kouros. Nicholas looked around to make sure that nobody was waiting to prod his purchase while he was gone, but it was the end of the working day and the last of the assistants was leaving the gallery. Relieved, Nicholas hurried to the storeroom.

Other earthquakes followed while the kouros was buried in the hillside. He could feel them pressing on his stone limbs, the earth shifting around him, packing him in more tightly. Sometimes it seemed as if the pressure must crack the limestone, but each time the strong rock held out, surviving another year, another decade, another century beneath the ground. Goats walked over him, rains fell on the earth above him, but the kouros’ stone smile stayed in place.

Nicholas took a deep breath and released it slowly. He always felt more at ease when the museum was empty, when it was his private domain. He set up the garish black-and-yellow striped bands around his prize exhibit, a metre and a half from the statue, far longer than any arm. There was barely any space left in the small room—no risk of a crowd. This was the first time the statue had ever been on display since it was discovered, and Nicholas felt the responsibility keenly. Only expert archaeologists had ever seen this statue, and he could not allow it to be damaged now that it had been entrusted to the care of the Royal Museum. He set up a metal placard holder behind the barrier, then hurried up to his office for the final item.

In the end it was another earthquake which had released the kouros. A spate of tremors occurred close together, sending panic through the islanders, who now drove cars and carried phones but still feared the shaking and rumbling as their ancestors had. The crevice in the hill, so long filled in, started to open again. The dry earth shifted and broke apart. Eventually, one of the many quakes dislodged enough earth to reveal a piece of the Zakynthos Kouros: one foot poked out into the light, as if he had kicked the hole himself. Once the quakes and aftershocks were over, it wasn’t long before the foot was spotted. The exultant looks on the faces of his discoverers when they realised that they’d found a whole archaic kouros reminded him of his early admirers. He smiled.

A piece of paper flapped in Nicholas’ hand as he walked quickly to the centre of the gallery. He slipped under the barrier and placed it on the placard holder, behind the plastic panel. ‘CAUTION: Do not attempt to touch this statue as it is very delicate’. Yes, that would do. Now all that remained was to shut down his computer and lock up. He wanted to get an early night, ready for the opening of the exhibition in the morning. It would be his triumph. He leaned down to adjust the piece of paper in its holder.

The smile on the kouros seemed sinister in the half-light of the side room. Towering above Nicholas, it looked far from delicate. It had survived its identity being forgotten. It had survived new styles of art and new philosophies. It had survived earthquakes too numerous for even an ancient hero to remember. It was lord of the island of Zakynthos.

The limestone remembered the tremors, the shaking and rumbling. It remembered the sensation of toppling, falling, from so long ago. Slowly it began to move.

Nicholas looked up from fiddling with the paper, but too late. He tried to back through the door but the barriers hindered him. The kouros crashed down on top of him. Its clenched stone fists pinned Nicholas’ arms to his side. The weight of its torso stifled him from crying out. There was silence.

*

The opening of the new Archaic Exhibition the next day was a great success. No one commented on the empty plinth in the side room. Instead, people’s eyes were drawn to the star attraction in the centre. One of the junior staff hurried over to Emma as casually as he could and spoke in a low voice so that the spectators could not hear.

“What on earth happened last night? I heard Nicholas got crushed by a statue or something?”

Emma replied in the same low tone. “It was the Zakynthos Kouros, the new one. But it’s okay; Nicholas is going to be alright. A cleaner found him this morning. A few broken ribs, but it looks like that’s all.”

“Poor sod!” replied her colleague. “What have you done with the statue? Was it smashed? That thing’s worth millions!” Emma raised her eyebrows and leaned closer.

“It was completely undamaged!” she whispered. “Nicholas must have broken its fall.”

“Dedicated to the last,” chuckled the boy. “But you haven’t displayed it, have you?”

“Of course I have,” Emma said, obviously proud to have been the one to make the decision. “Nicholas would want me to. But it’s okay, I’ve taken precautions.” She led him over to the centre of the room where the largest crowd was clustered.

“I’ve moved it to the central plinth. The other one must have been unstable. And I’ve put up those metal security barriers, not the stretchy ones. And I’ve put up a sign too.” She pointed to the display board which stood in front of the strong barriers. “It was open on Nicholas’s computer so I just changed it a bit and printed it.”

The limestone statue now towered over a sign that read: ‘CAUTION: Do not attempt to touch this statue as it is very dangerous.’

Standing tall in the centre of the gallery, staring over the heads of its new admirers, the kouros smiled.


Karen can be reached via her website: www.kcmurdarasi.com.

Don’t by Sarah Richman

Sarah recently graduated from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota with cum laude degrees in Creative Writing and International Studies. Her fiction and poetry are published in Chanter Literary Magazine and in Thistle Literary Magazine. Sarah is currently based in Washington, D.C., where she is working on her first novel.

Sometimes the world gets smaller before it gets bigger. Don’t is a short story about Eddie, a child whose family has changed in ways that he doesn’t understand yet.


 

Don’t

 

It was the last day of summer, and in the morning it rained. Eddie pressed his nose against the living room window. He watched the raindrops drip down the glass and into the yard, which had already turned to mud. The house was quiet. Eddie listened to the rain plinking off the roof and in the gutters. It sounded like maybe it would rain forever and would wash away everything, the cars and the yards and the sidewalks, and he would never get to go to second grade because the school would wash away and everything would be mud.

Eddie removed his nose from the window, leaving a smudge. The situation was serious. He decided to prepare. When the world washed away, he would not. He would be ready. Eddie slid down from his perch on the couch, sending his mother’s red throw pillows tumbling to the floor. He left them there. Her bosses let her do her lawyer work from home, so she was busy in her office downstairs with the blinds always shut. She probably didn’t know it was raining. Eddie would warn her later.

He rubbed at his nose and thought about what he would need to do first. The rain began to blow against the windows, tiny taps against the glass. Waterproof. He had to be waterproof. Eddie went to the boot tray by the front door and put on his green galoshes, and then opened the coat closet and pulled his raincoat from the hanger. Eddie zipped it up as far as it would go. The zipper tickled his chin. “Phase one: complete,” he whispered.

The coat closet was, like everything else in the house, carefully organized. Eddie looked up at the sweaters and raincoats and jackets, lined up by who was supposed to wear them. His father had gone on another trip. His hangers were all empty. He must have known it would rain. His hangers looked like knobby wooden shoulders, bunched up next to the ink-stained black coats that Eddie’s mother wore and the rows of Eddie’s brother’s things that always looked nice and new. His father had wanted to donate them, but his mother said no. Eddie was glad. He liked Neil’s coats, with the gum wrappers and pennies and his bus pass still in the pockets.

Eddie reached up and pulled Neil’s raincoat down too. He would be doubly waterproof, just to be sure. The shiny red fabric still had its familiar plastic-and-brother smell. It hung past his knees. Eddie puffed up his chest and pulled both hoods over his head, pulling the elastic so that he could still see. “Phase one: super complete,” he said to the hush of the hall, “Complete for real.”

The wet taps on the window grew louder as the wind picked up. Eddie could hear it whooshing around in the living room fireplace. He tugged at Neil’s sleeves. It would rain forever, he thought, and the wind would blow everything into the mud and the puddles, all the houses and all the people, and there would be no second grade for him or for anybody. Downstairs, the fax machine whirred. Downstairs. Down. Up. Eddie would go up. He would be a pilot. He would fly away from the rain and the wind and he would only land, he decided, when it was sunny again.

Eddie had read enough picture books to know that if somebody wanted to be a pilot, they had to wear a cap and goggles and a leather jacket. It was a law. He would ask his mother about it later, but he was pretty sure. Eddie rocked from his heels to his toes and back again, thinking. He stopped. There was a leather jacket in Neil’s room.

Eddie went upstairs and crept down the hall, holding his breath, making sure that his galoshes only made small squeaks. It was important to be quiet, like a ghost. One night at the beginning of the summer, not too long after his mother started doing her lawyer work downstairs and closing all the blinds and curtains, Eddie heard his father go into Neil’s room. Eddie heard him saying something. He got out of bed and pressed his ear to the wall, but his father’s voice was too quiet for him to hear the words. When he came in to kiss Eddie goodnight, his cheeks were wet. He started taking his trips after that.

Eddie reached the door. There was a small crack near the hinges, and two stickers that looked like they were stuck there without a lot of thought. One was from a Granny Smith apple. The other was from a band Neil used to like, a shiny red mouth sticker with a shiny red tongue and round white teeth. Eddie turned the doorknob and walked into the room. He wanted to say, “Phase two, part one: complete,” but he didn’t.

Neil’s room smelled just like his raincoat, only there was more of it. The air was full of Neil. The bed was unmade, as it always was, next to the nightstand with the cards and the little orange candy jars on it, and the guitar leaning against it on the ground. Clothes were piled around the bed and by the bookshelf: pants, shirts, unpaired socks. Eddie didn’t see a leather jacket. It was in the closet, maybe.

The closet door was closed. Eddie made his way over to it, turned the doorknob, and pulled. It didn’t open. Eddie frowned and puffed out his cheeks, but pilots needed to be brave and not quit, so he tried the door a second time. It didn’t open. Eddie stood in front of the door, thinking. Outside Neil’s window, rain came down on the roof like it didn’t know how to be quiet, just how to fall down and down and down.

Thunder began to rumble. Eddie’s stomach rumbled too. He remembered that it had been a long time since breakfast. He took one of Neil’s candy jars of the nightstand and tried to open it, but the white top wouldn’t come off. Neil loved his candy. He ate his candy in the morning and at night, even in the afternoons sometimes. He said it made his stomachaches feel better. Neil never let Eddie have even one piece, which wasn’t fair at all. There were more than enough to share.

Eddie put the candy jar back and jammed his fingers into the pockets of Neil’s raincoat. His hoods fell forward and he pushed them out of his eyes. His hands curled into fists. This was important. He was a pilot. He needed his lunch and he needed his leather jacket. Eddie wrapped both hands around the closet doorknob and yanked, hard.

It opened, sprinkling bits of dust from the top of the door. They hung in the air for a long moment, not ready to fall, but then Eddie stopped looking because there it was, the jacket, dangling in front of him. It was wedged in between the button-up shirts and the dress pants. Eddie pulled it down.

He slipped his left arm into the black leather, then his right. It was heavier than he thought it would be, heavy and warm, tugging a little at his shoulders as if it was tired and wanted to lie down. Eddie thought about saying “Phase, two: complete.” He rolled the words around in his mouth and then swallowed them. He had to be quiet.

Lightning flashed through the window over Neil’s bed. The light caught the lip of the old fishbowl on the desk where Neil kept his guitar picks. Eddie went over to the fishbowl and poked it. It was the size of his head. An idea gripped him, suddenly. It was the size of his head. He lifted the fishbowl off the desk and tilted it over. The picks made a nice clinking sound as they hit the desk. One rolled under the bed. Eddie flipped the fishbowl upside down and lowered it onto his head. He was better than a pilot. He was an astronaut.

Eddie took a few steps back and turned to face the wall mirror next to Neil’s desk. He peered out at himself from under the fishbowl and the jacket and the raincoats. His preparations, he saw, were perfect. Eddie was waterproof, windproof, and gravity-proof. He waved at his reflection and his reflection waved back.

Astronauts were better than pilots. He could see that now. They were like regular pilots, except they were space pilots. They didn’t have to worry about hitting birds or the Eiffel Tower. Eddie nodded in agreement with himself. This was the right way to go. There was no rain in space, and no mud, probably. He would have to go there to be sure. It would all be okay. He would build a spaceship and fly to a better place, like Neil did. He would go to second grade after all, except it would be on Mars.

The fishbowl was fogging up from Eddie’s breath, and it was becoming harder to see. A malfunction, Eddie thought, his first astronaut malfunction. He would have to fix his equipment before takeoff. He took the fishbowl off of his head and was thinking about how best to fix it when the elastic on Neil’s hood gave way. As the hood fell over Eddie’s eyes, he dropped the fishbowl.

It fell with a crash and shattered. Shards flew everywhere, spattering the floor and the bedspread. Eddie screamed. He leapt backwards, tripped over a pile of laundry, and found himself on the floor. His ears rang with the impact and his back stung. The bed loomed over him. The ceiling was miles away. Eddie was too stunned to move. Mayday, he thought. Mayday.

Eddie heard footsteps on the stairs, and then in the hall, and then the door opened. His mother appeared in the doorway. Her hair was pulled into a loose bun out of her face. He saw her cheeks go white and then pink all at once.

“Eddie! What are you doing in here!?”

He forgot how to breathe. “I was just…I was just trying to…”

His mother’s eyes swept over the room, catching on the raincoat, the leather jacket, the orange candy jars, and the fishbowl scattered into glistening pieces all around.

“Why did you touch his…oh god, Eddie, you–”

“It was an accident, Mama, I didn’t mean to,” Eddie burst out, his voice getting higher and thinner, “I really wasn’t trying to do anything bad, I was just playing, I’ll fix it for when Neil comes home–”

She seemed to pinch inward. “Eddie, you know he’s not…” Her knees buckled and her fingers went white on the doorframe. Her nose twitched. She inhaled sharply, smelling the air that was full of Neil and now with Eddie. Her face hardened. “You can’t play in here.”

Sweat dripped down Eddie’s ribcage. “I’m sorry, I–I was just–I wasn’t trying to break anything…”

She took a few steps into the room, not looking at him. She straightened a book on the bookshelf, then put it back. Her eyes seemed far away. “Get out.”

“I’m sorry, Mama, I’m really sorry–”

She looked down at him, and her eyes were stones. “Get out of here, Eddie.”

He clambered to his feet. “I’m sorry, I–”

Don’t,” she said, cutting him off. “Just don’t.”

“Mama–”

“Get out,” she said, quiet and low, “of your brother’s room.”

She closed the door behind him. Eddie stood in the dark hall, alone. The house was quiet. The rain poured down outside. Eddie could hear it crashing down on the roof and slamming against the windows, and he could feel it burning out from his eyes even though he shut them as tight as he could. Under his eyelids, everything was mud.

Eddie slid the jacket off his shoulders. He unzipped the raincoats and let them fall to the floor. It was the last day of summer. It sounded like maybe it would rain forever, on the houses and the people in them and on everything, and there would never be anything but mud. On the other side of Neil’s bedroom door, his mother began to cry.


You can read more of Sarah’s work at https://www.sarahrichmanwriter.com.

The Lay of the Last Survivor by Alex Mullarky

Alex Mullarky is a writer from Cumbria, England, who studied English Literature at St Andrews. She now lives in Melbourne, where she has completed a Masters in Screenwriting and works part time as a journalist.

The Lay of the Last Survivor is a short piece of historical fantasy containing and inspired by Alex’s loose translations of a number of anonymous Old English poems such as Wulf and Eadwacer and Charm against a Wen as well as a passage from Beowulf and the Old Dutch text fragment Hebban olla vogala.


 

The Lay of the Last Survivor

 

I am Lunete, the fourth of that name.

Before me, my mother, Ishild; her mother, Else. My great-grandmother Lunete who brought her people to this land gave us her name.

Mine is Lorn; I am the last. I sing the song of my suffering.

Else taught me many songs. Our people sang when they reached this land, and called it Beortholt, for the sunshine and the trees. There are songs for all things. Songs for weaving, songs for harvest. When she spied a wen at the base of my thumb, my grandmother seized my hand, spat on it, and sang.

Wenne, wenne, wenchichenne,
You shall not build here, nor make your home.
Move you northwards to that near place;
There, ermig, you have a brother.
There shall I lay a leaf upon your head.
Beneath the wolf’s foot and the eagle’s wing,
Beneath the eagle’s claw you will wither away.
You will smoulder, like a coal upon the fire;
Like water in the pot, you will fade away.
You will become as small as the linsetcorn,
Smaller than the handwurmes hupeban,
Smaller still, until you are nothing.

She sang it with me again and again until I could recite the words alone. She made me a poultice with leaves of milkblue, with the feather and claw of an eagle, and the toe of a grey wolf, and the wen shrank away to nothing.

I do not have the voice of a blackbird, as they say of Anesa, but because of Else I know all the songs, and when the old woman died it was me they began to turn to with queries about the words. Later still, I began to think of my own words, my own tunes, and I intended to ask Anesa to learn them and sing them, and I hoped they would bring the others great joy.

All that has changed.

It was his singing that drew me in, or I would not find myself where I am today. But when I sat weaving amongst the trees that afternoon and I heard the paddling of an oar and that sweet voice rising over the water, I was spellbound. It was a tune I recognised, though I did not know it by heart; I had heard Else singing it gently as she laundered her clothes in the dusk once, but she had never offered to teach it to me. It went like this:

All the birds are building nests,
Except for you and me;
What are we waiting for, my love?
What are we waiting for?

It was the voice of a man who does not understand the words he is singing, heavily accented, with the words flowing into one another: ‘for-my-love’. I caught glimpses of him between the leaves as he paddled closer, and I believed him to have a wolf’s skin cast over his shoulders, hooded over his head. When a breeze sprang up and the ears flickered, it was the wind that stirred them, of course. It began to rain.

All that is in the past, now. I have had much time to think on that day, back when the beasts were only a dark song for dark evenings. Perhaps he knew then what he was bringing down upon me, upon himself. I knew nothing–and yet it is I who serve out my sentence in isolation. In a fortnight, they will carry my cub to the tor and expose it.

There is a song about the tor, but it is long, too long to work into my song about myself. They say there was once a wyrm who nested on this island, one of the old monsters from before the time of men. There beyond the trees he fell into a slumber so long and deep that the earth grew over him and his flesh dissolved into the soil. There is a tunnel that was his tail, and a cavern in the heart of the hill where his ribs are a vaulted ceiling. But the entrance to the tunnel is a secret. It is never safe to venture into the belly of a dragon, however long it sleeps.

I hear a call outside. I hope my song will not be cut short.

It is quiet.

I should begin with Beortholt, since this island’s history is also my history. Lunete, my grandmother, was one of the five who brought their families here from the mainland many years ago, taking to the water for the first time in their people’s history. From there Beortholt’s song is swift and short: a small people surviving; then, as generations passed, a larger people prospering, trading, spreading to the small daughter islands. A thriving community with much wealth gathered, we named ourselves the Eadwacer: the watchers, guarding what is ours very closely.

And then came the beasts.

I knew the songs of battle but I had never witnessed one for myself before last autumn when the beasts reached our shores.

My song is not a battle song, though battles litter it. They were driven off that day, when my mother put a spear in my hand and thrust me out of the door to face the wolves. It was his face I was confronted with then, and already they were withdrawing. They made their camp on the nearest uninhabited island, deep in the fen country, and when they attacked again the following day, my wolf was not with them.

Then the weather turned and there they stayed for the winter, enemies at our door, and we kept wary eyes on one another, and my belly began to swell.

In spring the attacks began afresh. A tradition was born then, when old Rina wore the antlers of a stag into the fight. Before, we were a peaceable people, with no need for battle customs. Now when the cry goes up, the men and women of Beortholt reach for the antlers they keep on a high shelf and fasten them to their heads. I wear them nestled in my hair like a crown. Good for stabbing out an eye while thrusting a knife in. I saw Rina measure herself up against their leader, his sharp beak and her heavy head of antlers, he shaking out the feathers of his massive wingspan, she shifting her furs back on her shoulders. They were too well matched; both of them live still, though scarred.

When they came sailing towards us in their long ships we lined up on the shore and I sang my charm, made new, under my breath.

Wenne, wenne, wenchichenne,
You shall not build here, nor make your home.
Go back, ermig, to your brothers in the north.
They will lay leaves upon your chief.
Under the feet of wolves, under the wings of eagles,
Under the eagle’s claws my people weaken.
May you smoulder, like coals upon the fire.
Like water in the pot, may you fade away.
Your deeds smaller than the linsetcorn,
Your men among worms in the earth.
So little. May you come to nothing.

We are all too well matched. Three times they met us in battle; three times they withdrew as night fell and we took the advantage in the night-time landscape we could navigate in our sleep.

I did not see my wolf again on the battlefield, but my swelling stomach began to draw attention. Questions were asked; we are a small community, they are bound to be. No one came forward as the father and I offered no help to those who would pry. At last old Ninian ordered that I should be brought to him, and he took one look at me and recoiled in disgust, and announced, ‘It is one of theirs’.

That seems a very long time ago, now. It must be two months or more. My time is very close. I feel the babe clawing to be free; it has claws, certainly. I hope he will have ears like his father’s. I think when they learned what the wolf had done, they locked him away, as the Eadwacer have done to me. They do not intend to kill me, but when the child is born they will expose it at once; old Ninian told me so.

It is a funny thing. I have faith in my wolf, though I knew him only briefly. He has kind eyes, and the hair of his beard is very soft. He will make certain our cub survives.

I think perhaps the song is ready.

He will be given to my elders like an offering.
If he comes with his men, they will swarm him.
We are distant.
The wolf is on one island, I on another.
His island is secure, deep in the fens.
The people of that island are savage.
If he comes with his men they will turn on him.
We are different.
I have thought long on my far-wandering wolf,
On the day when fierce tears joined the rain,
When the wolf of war brought me into his arms.
He was a comfort to me, then
–and likewise hateful to me.
Wolf, my wolf, who corrupted me.
It is not the starvation that disquiets me.
Do you hear me, Eadwacer?
A wolf will carry our cub to the forest.
You may readily tear apart a thing which could never be joined
–our songs together.

I hear a sound. I think it is laughter.

No. Not laughter. Shouts.

I hear footsteps and I recognise their timbre. My mother, Ishild, unlocks the door. ‘You must run,’ she says. When she speaks again I do not hear her. I crumple to the floor. I am splitting in two.

My mother kneels down beside me at once, lies me back with gentle hands. ‘The child chooses its timing poorly,’ she says. She locks the door and washes her hands in the pail.

For the next hour my screams almost drown out the clamour beyond the locked door. Beyond the pain in my own body, I understand that there is turmoil outside, and slaughter.

What a moment to be born, my cub!

When finally it is over, my mother thrusts the babe into my arms and rips the cord that joins us with her teeth. I cry out, in horror, not pain. ‘Run,’ my mother breathes, and she unlocks the door and vanishes into bright white sunlight.

‘Mother,’ I cry after her.

I have a screaming child in my arms, but the air is thick with shrieks and cries. I wrap the babe carefully in the blanket that I have slept wrapped in over these past months. She will know her mother’s smell, at least, for it is a girl I swaddle tightly. I clutch her to my chest and, stumbling, climb to my feet.

My eyes cannot cope with the brightness of the sun until I am surrounded by it. Old Ninian is dead at my feet, his throat torn open by teeth. I suck in a breath and cover the baby’s eyes lest it fathom something of what it sees. The dwelling in which I was kept is some stretch from the settlement, separated by distance and a clutch of trees. I hold the girl tight to my chest and stride between gnarled trunks. I flinch at every twig-snap, but the beasts are not in the forest.

They are in the village. The grass is littered with bodies, the paths that generations since my great-grandmother have worn down are smeared with blood. The sight makes my stomach turn. The people I have known all my life–everyone I have ever known–cut down as they ran, lying where they fell in grotesque parodies of flight. I watch as an axe is thrust between a woman’s shoulders by a man with the black feathers of a raven spreading from his arms. The woman’s cry curdles my blood, and she falls, twitching. She was the last.

No. I am the last.

The beasts stand together, surveying their work. There is not an antler among the dead. How were they able to set upon my people with no warning?

They are discussing the dead; I see it in their gestures. Who will loot the bodies, perhaps. Who will finish off those who still breathe. An eagle squawks in anger. I gather myself together. I should be splitting at the seams with rage. Instead I feel cold, and very calm.

I step towards them. A hand closes on my forearm before I can raise my other foot and I turn quick as a startled doe to face my wolf.

He is distressed. I do not understand his words, but his tone is clear. His eyes are wide looking at the babe I hold, the girl-child who squirms and attempts to suckle. He reaches for it, and I press it close to my chest. I wrench myself back. My foot catches, and I stumble. I land on my back and the child falls from my arms.

The wolf picks it up. He cradles it gently, cooing to it. He offers me a hand. By some miracle we have not yet been noticed by the others. I begin to pick myself up. My hands are wet with blood, my body twisted up over a corpse on the ground. I scramble away from it, horrified. Then I cry out, a long, low wail.

It is my mother, Ishild. Her face is broken and bloody. She stares at me in terror.

The wolf speaks more urgently now, grabbing for me, as the beasts take note of our presence. I claw at him, push him away, and then I drag my fingers through my hair and tear, howling like an animal. The wolf backs away from me. Blood runs from my scalp onto my face, and I grab more fistfuls and pull again.

The wolf has my child. I reach for it, and he holds it away.

The beasts do not care about me. They have begun to search the houses. I know what they seek; they won’t find it there.

The wolf lays a hand against my cheek. I turn sharply and sink my teeth into it. He flinches. His eyes are full of dismay. He backs off a few paces, begins to walk away, then runs. He has taken my child.

My mother lies broken beside me. I dig my nails deep into the skin of my cheeks and keen.

Tripping, falling, I run through the trees towards the tor. It rises above the leaves like a beacon. I have entered the belly of a dragon once before, on the day when old Else showed me where the accumulated wealth of the Eadwacer was safeguarded. I find the opening in the hill, the sliver of cave that cannot be seen from almost any angle. I push my body through it. In the darkness on the far side I feel for the pile of stones that has been left here with just this situation in mind. One stone at a time, I wall myself into the barrow.

In the darkness you cannot see the glint of gold, but you can feel it, cold and hard beneath seeking hands. I half-climb, half-wade into it, singing as I go, part charm, part keen.

Heald ðu nu, hruse, what watchers could not–
The harp is silent, the music gone.
The hawk has flown from the hall.
The swift mare fled from the courtyard.
Bealocwealm hafað
fela feorhcynna forð onsended.

I sink deep into the hoard, roll golden coins across my bare skin. It is so very dark.

I wait–a long time indeed. I hear nothing but the deep silence of the tor.

At last I feel the rage begin to burn into me, where before there was only coldness. It resonates through me until I am humming with it. My flesh is burning. If I open my mouth my breath will be flame. If I open my arms the skin will fall away and my wings unfurl.

I am Lorn, the last of the Eadwacer.

It is very dark. I think I will sleep.


This piece was based off of a society with a strong oral tradition; to honor that tradition, a reading of this piece by Caterina Giammarresi is available here. More information about Alex Mullarky and her work is available on her website, www.alexmullarky.com.

The Washing Cycle by Pauline Jérémie

Born and raised in France, Pauline holds a Masters in Creative Writing with distinction from the University of Edinburgh. After living in many different countries, she now lives, works, and writes in the Scottish capital.


 

The Washing Cycle

 

There was blood on Karen’s daughter’s underwear. It had gone through the cotton and appeared on the outside of the white knickers, and dried and rendered the garment thick on the patch that had fit between Emma’s legs. Alone in the bathroom, Karen allowed herself to run the tips of her fingernails along the caked blood; her hands were reddened by the chemicals she’d been using to clean the bathroom this morning, and she felt nothing but stiffness under her fingertips. She dropped the garment back into the basket with the rest of the dirty clothes she’d picked up around the house—her daughter’s football uniform, a white top with foundation on its collar, Michael’s work shirts that he’d left on the dressing table chair—and made her way down the two flights of stairs to the basement.

Apart from the sound of the radio, which was playing some pop star’s new single from the living room, the house was quiet. Michael was at work and Emma locked up in her room. They had argued last night at dinner, Emma’s interjections the typical ones of a teenager who believes that she’s misunderstood, Michael’s the unhelpful ones of a father who spends too little time with his family to know what is actually happening. Karen had tried to calm everyone down but the conversation had still ended with the slamming of Emma’s door and Michael’s frustrated grunts. He had cleared the table and washed the dishes with barely concealed anger, gone to bed before Karen, and left for work without speaking a word to either of them.

As she passed by her daughter’s room, Karen noticed that the “Do not disturb” sign was still up on her door, the three words written across a simple sheet of paper wrinkled by the years of use. There was not a sound coming from inside—Emma must have been on her laptop listening to music through her headphones at a level that Karen knew she would probably disapprove of. Karen would try to talk to her later and offer that they order sushi and watch some TV together. Everything would be fine.

Karen’s slippers whispered against the steps that led to the basement. She balanced the basket between her hip and elbow, turned on the light, and walked up to the washing machine. The room was silent and smelled of laundry detergent and fresh linen. Another basket of clean clothes that she hadn’t yet had time to fold was sitting on the ironing board and a few of Michael’s shirts were still hanging from coat hangers waiting to be ironed. The basement was full of cardboard boxes that contained objects that they didn’t need anymore which Karen needed to sort through, and a few of Emma’s old baby clothes and toys that she couldn’t bring herself to get rid of. The shelf against the left wall was still covered in photo albums, books, and strange owl figurines that they’d got back from Michael’s mum’s house after she’d passed away which he’d promised he’d take care of a while ago, just like the humidity stains on the ceiling and the dodgy pipes that had been needing fixing for a few years now.

Karen deposited her basket on top of the washing machine and picked Emma’s underwear back up. The stain would probably never come off, she realised, and for a moment she considered just throwing them away, but she thought she should at least try. She opened the cupboard above the machine, took out a plastic box full of cleaning products, and picked out a half-empty tube of toothpaste along with an old toothbrush whose bristles had gone flat from use. She applied a thick layer of toothpaste onto the stain and starting brushing it into the fabric, just like her mother had taught her all those years ago.

She had taught her many more things, and Karen often wondered if her life would be any different if she had listened to her mother’s lessons more attentively. She would maybe not have waited such a long time to get married, would not have put her career before her family. She would maybe have listened when she began hearing people say, “you guys would make such great parents”, or when Michael’s mother started asking when they were finally going to give her grandchildren. She remembered that time when she thought that they had their lives ahead of them, and she remembered it bitterly.

The stain was already fading beneath Karen’s fingers. The minty smell of toothpaste tickled her nostrils and blood was running off the stain to lodge itself underneath her nails. Karen remembered when she was younger and had to take care of the bloodstains on her own underwear, back when she thought that having her period was a curse and hated the idea that she would have to deal with it for the rest of her life. Now she would have done anything to wake up and see blood between her legs.

They had tried to have more children. They had tried so hard Karen still didn’t understand why it hadn’t worked. Michael had always wanted a boy. He’d made a list of names he liked—names taken from old school friends, or books he’d read, or conversations he’d overheard in the streets—and Karen had found it ripped to pieces at the bottom of the bin about a year ago. When Karen was pregnant they had refused to learn the sex of the baby and had agreed on a light green for the room, but Michael had still bought a blue sleep suit with tiny anchors on the front, which lay at the bottom of the pile of Emma’s baby clothes with the price tag still attached to it. He had never been disappointed that Emma was a girl and kept telling Karen that there was still plenty of time for them to have a boy—except there wasn’t any time left now. There was no longer any blood, and there would never be another baby. There would never be a little boy.

Karen realised that she’d been brushing the fabric so hard that it had started pilling, so she set the toothbrush aside and chucked Emma’s underwear into the washing machine, where it landed with a soft thump. Her hands were trembling now, and she had to put both her hands flat on top of the machine for a moment to calm herself down. She could hear her heartbeat inside her ears and feel a lump in her throat as her eyes started to prickle, but she swallowed hard past it once, then twice, then took in a deep breath, and she felt better. Everything would be fine.

Looking out the small window at the top of the wall, she noticed for the first time that day that it was raining. It was a Saturday in mid-June, and the sun should have been shining and the streets packed with children playing, mothers reading out on their porches, and fathers tending to their cars and gardens, but instead the street was grey and empty, the sound of the drops falling onto the roofs of cars the only thing to be heard.

With a sigh, she focused back on sorting the clothes out. Whites into the machine, colours in the basket. She inspected a couple of Michael’s white shirts. One of them had a red stain on the front near the fourth button, certainly a dash of ketchup from the sandwich she’d prepared for him last Tuesday; the other showed a mark too, on the collar this time—a burgundy, glittery, faded smear. She had seen a few of these before on his button-ups, and Karen knew they disappeared really well with her regular stain remover. She dabbed the stains with product and threw them into the drum, where they joined Emma’s stained underwear; she added the foundation-coloured white top and a few of Michael’s tennis socks, and started a quick wash at sixty degrees. She had dealt with this before. She knew what she was doing. Everything would be fine.

As water started pouring into the machine, Karen went back up the stairs into the kitchen, bringing with her the basket of clean laundry and setting it on the dining table. She still had plenty of things left to do before Michael came home from work tonight, but he had been working on demanding cases lately and often left the office long after Karen and Emma had gone to bed. Then, in the dimness of their bedroom, Karen would watch him undress slowly, his movements languid and reluctant, and he would join her in bed, his body still fresh from outside and his breath smelling of whiskey. Karen had a feeling he always knew she wasn’t asleep, but they never talked.

They used to. They would have conversations for hours on end, at the breakfast table, in the car, in bed after Emma had fallen asleep and the house was quiet and undisturbed. He would tell her about his cases, about that article he’d read at lunch in the newspaper she’d packed in with his meal, and most importantly he would ask her about her day and pay attention when she said that she’d met with Lilian for coffee, or had a chat with Emma about a boy from her class she liked, or watched a movie that had made her cry. Now she never heard about Michael’s clients, or whom he’d gone to lunch with, or what his boss had thought of the outcome of his latest case. Now there was just silence.

The radio was still playing music in the living room, and Karen looked at the checklist in front of her. She needed to pick up Michael’s dry cleaning, go grocery shopping, and take the dog out for a walk. The house was a mess too and Michael hated coming home to a dirty place, so she would need to tidy everything up before he got back. The kitchen didn’t require much attention, but she still needed to hoover the carpet, dust the shelves, unload the dishwasher, change their bed sheets.

Just thinking about her tasks exhausted her, and Karen automatically took out a glass from the cabinet and the bottle of Côtes de Bergerac she’d opened last night and poured herself a large glass. The condensation made the liquid look hazy and the glass still showed a trace of red lipstick on the brim. She looked at the clock and failed to feel guilty for having a drink at two in the afternoon. She didn’t even mind the fact that at any time Emma could stumble down the stairs into the kitchen and walk in on her mother getting drunk in the middle of the day. Instead, she took a sip, relished the feeling of the alcohol going down her throat, and put the drink back down next to the sink with a soft click.

She was tired. She wished that Emma would come out of her room and offer her help and chat with her as they cleaned together. She wished that Michael would come home earlier tonight, have dinner with them, and finally agree to touch her body under the blankets at night. She wished that there was noise in the house, footsteps and laughter and singing, that they would start watching television together again like they used and that Michael would prepare the fish pie he was so good at making and hadn’t cooked in years.

Karen took another sip of wine, a bigger one this time that burned when she swallowed, and hesitated a minute before opening the last drawer on the left of the kitchen counter. She fumbled through broken scissors, hotel matchboxes, user guides for objects that they didn’t own anymore, until she found what she was looking for. She had put the pack of cigarettes there a long time ago and the paper had yellowed and the tobacco dried, but she couldn’t have cared less in that moment. She took a match out of one of the boxes, which they had been given at a cottage in Devon many years ago, and lit a cigarette. It was her first one in such a long time that it burned her throat and brought tears to her eyes when she took the first drag, but after a couple more she found that pleasant feeling again, the familiar hand gesture, the bitter smell. She walked up to the sink, opened the window, dropped her ashes down the drain, and relaxed against the counter.

After years of trying, Michael’s mother had suggested, in that nagging voice of hers, that things might work better if they both gave up smoking, that she had read somewhere that nicotine decreased fertility, so Karen and Michael had both worn patches and chewed gum for months with the conviction that it could only help. But it hadn’t and right now Karen resented her mother-in-law for keeping her away from her cigarettes for so long, because although Karen’s lungs were clearer now, the house was still quiet, the third room still empty, and that blue sleep suit still laying unused at the bottom of a cardboard box.

With the back of the shaky hand with which she was holding her cigarette, Karen wiped at her eyes with more strength than she had intended to, leaving a smear of black mascara on her red, irritated skin. She took a few more drags from the cigarette before putting it out against the side of the sink, and chucked the butt out of the open window. Outside, the rain had stopped.

She took a deep breath, ignored the dryness of her mouth and the way her nostrils tickled, turned around, and started sorting through the clean clothes she had brought up with her and left on the kitchen table. She made three piles, one for each of them, and then went up the stairs and put them away in their respective wardrobes. She left Emma’s in the basket outside her door, not yet willing to face her, but she knew everything would be fine.

When she was done, Karen made her way back to the basement and put the wet clothes in the dryer. Inside, amongst a heap of button-ups and isolated socks, lay a blood-stained pair of underwear.


Pauline can be reached on Twitter, @paulinejeremie, or by email at pauline.jeremie@gmail.com.