Sam Szanto is a writer, an English tutor, a proofreader and copy-editor and a mother. She lives in Durham with her husband, two children and one cat but is originally from Eastbourne. She was brought up by an astrologer father and mother but has never got to grips with putting up natal charts - she finds the Tarot easier. Sam writes poetry and short stories, and has had over 100 of them published and/or listed for competitions; her third book, a poetry pamphlet called 'This Was Your Mother' will be published by Dreich in 2024. She won the Charroux and First Writer International poetry prizes. The themes of her writing are hiraeth, motherhood, identity and voicelessness. Find her on Twitter/X at sam szanto, Instagram at samszantowriter and on her website samszanto.com
Rachael Sparks was the best runner at her school. She considered this was because she was the tallest, with the longest legs. On Sports Day, she won all of her races. Her PE teacher asked if she wanted to join the Athletics Club. When she said not really, thank you, he emailed her parents to ask the same question.
Please give some thought to this. In my opinion, Rachael would bring a lot to the team.
‘Why wouldn’t you join?’ her mum asked. ‘Running’s your talent, Rachael. Your gift. You could be the next Paula Radcliffe.’
‘Your grandad would have loved seeing you win those races,’ her dad said.
Rachael’s grandad had died before she was born; there was a framed picture, in the toilet, of him post-London Marathon, face scraped of feeling despite the medal he was holding up. Her dad often reminisced about the cross-country runs they had done together when he was a boy. He would like Rachael to go running with him now.
Her dad thought of himself as a runner. Rachael thought of herself as someone who won races. Running was fine, but she liked finishing a race more than taking part. The thrill was in streaking past the line and lifting her head, the stretch of sky flung backwards, the sound of her breath going back and forth. While she was running, words pulsed in her brain and flowed alongside her. The words listened to her body. In normal life, Rachael found it hard to be listened to.
Rachael couldn’t make her parents see that she didn’t care about being part of a team, people shoved together on a coach at weekends just because they were good at one thing. None of Rachael’s friends did Athletics. If she had to join something, she would choose Library Club.
‘How about you come to the next Park Run?’ her dad asked. ‘There’s a Junior 5K on Saturday, I’ll sign you up. If it’s not for you, we won’t mention Athletics again.’
‘I’d rather not,’ Rachael said.
‘How lovely for you two to have some bonding time,’ her mum said.
Rachael’s dad, head to toe in Lycra, opened her curtains at seven o’clock on Saturday. The sky had been coloured in with grey pencil. Rachael, slowly sloughing on her school PR kit, hoped it would rain so the race would be cancelled: she could finish Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
Fingers of rain tapped on the car windows.
‘Great to run in a shower,’ her dad said. ‘It helps your speed.’
There were three car parks in Bushy Park, where the race was taking place, but only space in the one furthest from the start. Rachael’s dad said that as the junior run started before the adult one, he would drop her off then park the car.
Rain hammering on her head, Rachael hurried to the group of runners.
‘Race is about to start,’ a woman with a face full of wrinkles called. ‘Name?’
Rachael told her, and the woman consulted a list. ‘I can’t see you. We’ll sort it at the end. Find a space: thirty seconds.’
Rachael squeezed into the front middle of the runners; there was nowhere else. Looking around, she felt a beat of nerves. The others had on proper running gear; the type of leggings and tops her dad wore. They had long skinny legs like her, but most were even taller. They looked a lot older, too. Was this really a Junior 5K?
A whistle blew, the runners streamed forward. Not knowing what else to do, Rachael ran.
The wind and rain rushed behind her. Strangers stood at the sides: cheering, waving. She felt free, like an animal.
By the time she reached a split in the course, Rachael’s breath was catching at the back of her throat. She inhaled a midge and choked. Her body was tiring, her muscles sore. Each breath was followed by an ellipsis.
‘Bit young for this, aren’t you?’ A man threw out a grin as he passed her.
Rachael’s temper flared. She might be young, and not a real runner, but she had never lost a race. Breaths burning, she sprinted. Level with the front of the pack, she slowed slightly so as not to use all her energy.
The end was in sight. And for the first time, she felt inside the run.
One… final… spurt…
There was a single person in front of her, the man who had said she was too young for this. Rachael took in lungfuls of air, pushed on. The path shouted at her feet. Then she overtook the man and joy surpassed pain. Her feet skidded over the muddy finish line.
A shimmering silence; then came the applause.
Her dad was striding over, looking like someone who had found a new room in a house they thought they knew. ‘You won, Rachael. You won an adult race.’
As the wrinkled woman put a gold medal around Rachael’s neck, she asked: ‘How old are you, love? Fourteen?’
‘I’m ten.’ Rachael tried to catch her breath. Sparks of pain flared inside her thighs. She was given a bottle of water, and gulped it down. ‘Can I keep the medal?’
‘Sorry, Lindsey,’ Rachael’s dad said to the woman. ‘I mixed up the races; thought the Junior 5K was first.’
The man who had come second smiled at Rachael. ‘You must be the shining light of your school’s athletics club?’
He turned away to high-five another competitor before she could reply.
Her dad and Lindsey were talking, glancing intermittently at Rachael.
‘Can we go, Dad?’ Rachael tapped his shoulder.
‘Just a minute, love,’ he said. ‘Lindsey’s suggesting training programmes. She thinks you’ve got real potential as a runner. Told her it runs in the family, ha ha. Her grandad did all the UK marathons, Lindsey… London, Brighton, Edinburgh.’
Rachael walked away, medal banging against her wet chest. She wondered when her dad would notice she had gone.
[won second prize in the 2023 Strands International 18 Contest]
I selected a table as if I were buying it, cleared a lipsticked memento of a previous meeting, held onto my phone. Stared through a window made foggy by rain.
Was a café the right choice? She was often holding wine glasses in her profile photos, in which she pouted unsmilingly, arms around friends and family. I knew those photos as if they were my tattoos, as if they were my scars. In mine, I was alone.
I smoothed my hair, blonde like hers. The doors cleaved open. Without the glass divide, she looked like me. Like me, without the scars. I stood up.
[first published by Roi Faineant Press in October 2023]
Ten Ways Of Looking At Clouds
after Wallace Stevens
1. “They’re the angels’ sofa cushions,”
her daughter says. “When they bounce
on them, their mummies shout.”
2. She listens to what the lady in the chair
beside hers is saying
as the stylist makes her hair
bigger, bigger, bigger.
3. The clouds move as quickly as her mother’s
memories, drifting out of reach
before she can speak them.
4. The male doctor tells her to write down
her feelings, but her brain is so wispy
she can only write the word ‘angry’
and not explain the way fury forms,
shape-changes, dissipates, forms.
5. She has an old friend she can never
pin down. “Oh, I’d love to see you,”
she says airily, “but I’m going travelling.”
6. Drinking more water
is the answer to most things.
7. “How wonderful to see everything
without making judgements,”
her husband says.
8. In her twenties, she had lots
of one-night stands, but now she tries
to picture their faces, they’re vague
and nebulous. Does she have a type?
9. On the day her mother dies, she realises
the clouds and sun and sky are one
10. “If you’re feeling down, just
look up,” her mother always
said. She sees a shaft of light
breaking through washy cloud.
Then something falls.
Her mother’s last laugh / parting gift?
[first published by Hidden Peak Press, October 2023]
Our ancient cat
who for six years did not hunt
brings in a dead shrew
as a parting gift for my husband
about to leave on a work trip.
My husband sighs and double-bags it.
For the rest of the day, I feel it returned to the world,
a Lazarus-mouse scuttering
in the cave of my brain.
The next morning, I’m cleaning my teeth
when my son solemnly tells me
There’s a mouse in the playroom, Mummy.
When I come down
the children and cat are stiff as funeral-goers
in the living room.
We’re scared of you screaming, Mummy.
We troop like a cortege into the playroom
where a toy-camera box
has been placed over the corpse,
In case it comes back to life, Mummy.
I lift it off to reveal
a thumb-sized amount of bone and fur.
I place it in a sandwich bag, wash my hands,
make breakfast for all of us, do the school run, scream.
When I pick them up in the afternoon
there is something squashed
between my hand and my daughter’s,
scurrying on the table as they do their homework
and floating in the dinner I bring over
as they giggle at the table.
[first published by Atrium Press, September 2023]
Today I Am Suzanna
lying dreamless until the alarm tinkles
dancing from bed to be kissed by the shower
in the mirror smiling at smooth soapstone skin
dressing in ironed Boden and Joules
my husband is making breakfast
we touch like the lines of a couplet
our son and daughter
irradiated as automated lights
when they see me
delivered to school they genuflect
at the door
another mother tries to stop me -
an invite to a playdate
or a party or a soft play
I hold up my phone
to indicate she text -
throwing impasto grins
at everyone I see
I am Suzanna only
if I do not speak
[first published by Fevers of the Mind, August 2023]
Thaddeus Arjuna is a retired chef who gave up cooking a few years ago to pursue an outlet for his creative self. He lives in Bali, Indonesia as an American expat. He started by writing about his troubled mother, an institutionalized manic depressive, but left the work on his hard drive after some pushback from family members. Then he embarked on a novella about a restauranteur with whom he had previously worked. He vanished in 1998 without a trace, leaving behind a large family, ex-wives and a 14 year old daughter. No one was ever charged and his body and car were never found. His Story, 'The Mansion at Peacock Gully' is about his time with Henry and the start-up restaurant before he died. Thaddeus uses a pen-name due to this, as the killer is still alive. He has 8 self-published books. A True Indie who does almost everything himself, including editing and some of the graphic design, although most are done by a fellow Twitter author. He refers to his brand of poetry as #OrganicPoetry.
Diamonds From Heaven
In a dark storm without direction or hope, with lightning, the only illuminance to guide me, diamonds from heaven fell to me. Beautiful sparkling diamonds have shown as stars aligned. Surrounding me, giving me joy, showing me there is still great wonder in the Universe. It awaits us all. And now these stellar gems of gratitude are in my heart. Guiding me forward into the starry night. Lifting me up. They feel like friends. I will never forget their world or the ride in this wondrous ocean of light.
The Strength That Sustained Me
For my brother Steve
You were so strong when you were young. You were chiselled, and you had a face that reflected deep thought and a calm mind. Physically, in your teens, you resembled a white Jesus, with your hair long, straight, and cascading on your shoulders, with piercing but kind eyes. And, you had passionate opinions to go along with it. When I was unsure of myself, I relied upon you. I listened to you. I believed you. And I appreciate that you protected me when I felt so unprotected. And no matter what transpires, I will remember you in this way. I have loved you all my life. And I want you to know you are not alone. You are with me always, in my heart.
The Island Of The Gods
An Ode To Bali
I came from a tradition of hard work and little play. And when I got tired, I came here to stay. Your weather welcomed me and your beauty took my breath away. I didn’t understand the way you spoke, but I loved that you accepted everyone, even those you didn’t know. I was surrounded by Aussies who called me bloke and the cows who ignored me when I screamed at them. I walked on your beach and marvelled at your volcano. I drank your coconut and ate your fried rice. I loved the way you celebrated life. Thank you for letting me stay.
excerpt from ‘Evolution of Eve’
"The plan to recreate the Earth. I am so excited. Maybe we can bring life on Earth back? “Raphael says.
“Why bother? Earth is screwed up because no one cares. They have poured so much poison into the food, water and air that it’s a miracle that they’ve lasted this long. It won’t solve the problem because they cannot face what the cause of the problem is - that they poisoned themselves. Hate to say it, but the best thing that can happen is that the human population becomes extinct on Earth. It’s only going to take another forty or so years. We can all go back and reclaim Earth then,” Franco says with a frightful chuckle.
“What is this ‘they’ business? You and I are Earthlings, too. I have family there still, and so do you.”
another excerpt from ‘Evolution of Eve’
She reaches for Winston and holds his hands.
"Hope’ is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all
And sweetest in the Gale is heard
And sore must be the storm —
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm —
I've heard it in the chilliest land —
And on the strangest Sea —
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb — of Me.”
She said it out loud to Titan and Winston and then she smiled.
Winston looks at Titan and says, “Just when I think I cannot fill the void, when I think my existence is pointless and I am overwhelmed with worries for my parents… with Mars appearing to be torn apart at the seams… she says something like this.”
He turns and looks at Eve, “You say something that makes me realize why I love your Mars. You give me the strength to want to break out and scream, I am Martian! I am different! And that is a good thing!”
“Easy, big boy. She makes me want to scream it with you,” Titan says laughing wholeheartedly. “And I’m thrilled to be a part of this. I recognize that poem, Eve. A famous American woman wrote that. A woman not unlike you,” he says, glancing at Winston. “A kindred spirit, I would venture to say.”
Titan smiles at Eve. She is beaming. Winston is crying. It is a good day on Mars.
excerpt from ‘Something is Wrong with Janet’
"And then, stranger than strange, they started licking our faces. Yes. Licking the tears running down our faces. That was not a typo, and I was not imagining this from some drug-induced stupor. The horses had galloped across the farm to us and no matter how much we tried to push them away they wouldn’t stop It was a lesson that I would take deep to heart. A miracle is what seems impossible but happens anyway. Said somebody not famous."
The Fisherman’s daughter.
You were dark and mysterious. Beautiful and wavy. You had the kiss of a doe and the sting of a hornet, my beautiful Indonesian lady. I have loved you for a long time. We met in Jakarta after I had watched American Football in South Korea. You introduced me to 500 Buddhas and gave me paradise. We have visited volcanoes and swam in beautiful clear oceans and viewed ancient temples and played with monkeys, and watched amazing sunsets from our balcony. I can never thank you enough for this. This life, full of sunshine and wonder.
The Fox Outside My Door
My swollen gland awakens this old writer. I stumble outside the back door to relieve myself. The moonlight is beautiful. The sky is full of stars. The smell of Gardenia is in the air. And somewhere nearby someone is cooking crispy bacon. And there behind the kaffir lime bush, a little critter stares at me. His eyes are fixated on me in the moonlight. His gaze is intense. Unflinching. I take a step toward him. He takes a step back. I take a step back too, and he moves forward. He’s not afraid or curious enough to come to me, but his eyes never blink or stray away from the strange intruder who has invaded his quiet dark yard. And then a quiet chirp, almost a scream, he lets out. And then she darts off into the night, and I notice the vixen fox has two kits following quickly behind. Please return little foxes. So that we can trade stories of our escape.
How We Lost America
the march to a theocracy
We loved our freedom because we knew no one could take it away. No enemy was strong enough to threaten us when we were willing to fight anyone anywhere to preserve it. We shed our blood willingly and sent our children to fight and kill millions of others in continent after continent in war after war in the name of liberty generation after generation. We even believed in "freedom of religion", or so we told ourselves. But we forgot to include the most important words, 'freedom from religion' And now we have to build walls because everyone is a threat to us that doesn't look like us or believe like us. And yet, we didn't see, that the real threat was right inside our own borders from ourselves. The threat to take away those same freedoms and liberties in the name of "saving us" is very real. There is no wall for this menace.
Lizzie Eldridge is a writer, actor, human rights activist and teacher from Glasgow. As well as being on the board of Scottish PEN, she’s written two novels and has also published short stories, flash fiction and poetry. Her first novel, Duende (2014), is set in the shadow of the Spanish Civil War and is a love story between two men. Her second novel, Vandalism (Merlin Publishers 2015), takes place in Glasgow and centres on Moira, whose best friend is dying of cancer when a man she once loved reappears in her life. Vandalism was shortlisted for a National Book Prize in Malta where Lizzie lived for 12 years. It was also chosen as one of the Best Books 2017 by Waterstones Byres Rd Glasgow.
Don’t come out till you’ve stopped laughing, were Ewan’s final words.
Don’t come out till you’ve stopped laughing, he said.
I never did stop laughing. But life went on anyway. It always does. The earth can swallow a thousand people in one go while the survivors manage to pick up their belongings and fill their stomachs with warm soup. My loss seemed insignificant in comparison.
It wasn’t as if we’d been in love for long. Seven weeks of looking into each other’s eyes and wishing we could defer the pain of what was to come. But the limited timespan of our romance was its making, not its undoing. No worries about growing grey and tetchy together. Contempt for the familiar was not an option.
The next time I sensed that same urgency was when my closest friend was diagnosed with breast cancer. Both twenty-eight, friends since school, such things didn’t happen to girls like us. We met up in the same bars, smoked the same cigarettes, shared endless complaints about the men who didn’t stick around and the ones we wished had not. Connie was older than me by a whole month and that month now lurked like a gaping hole within her absence.
She told me she’d found a lump.
It's like a penny piece, it is, but without any hard bits... A penny piece without any edges, she said.
She found it when she was having a bath and was going to get it checked, the day after next. It was probably nothing. She was sure it was nothing. Och, nothing to worry about, she said. And when Connie didn’t phone to cancel, we met up the following Thursday as we always did.
Connie was already in the pub when I arrived. It had been raining and both of us had come out without our brollies. Connie was sitting on her own, staring firmly through the window. I knew as soon as I looked at her. I bloody knew.
They’re going to operate as soon as possible, she said.
And I sat down, mouth stupid and wide open, unable to offer anything that might come close to consolation.
After that, I found myself clinging to each moment that we met, each quiet pause when neither of us needed to say a word. Limitations place infinite significance on the everyday mundane. Perhaps all of life should be lived like that, I thought, remembering crying as a child because Christmas Day was over for another year. Never enjoying the present because of its ephemeral loneliness. And then love and death enter the equation, forcing things to be perceived in a wholly different light.
José was already in class when Nayo walked in. And it was José who gave him that much needed nod as their eyes came into contact while Nayo was making his way towards his desk. When Nayo responded to the call of his name from the register, he felt an unusual sense of affirmation run through his body. Yes, he thought. I am Nayo Ramirez Rivera. Yes, he thought. I exist.
Thursday afternoons were always a blessing. Art was what he loved. The stillness of the classroom, the tranquility of trying to capture live objects on to paper, the beauty of being given permission for that which you are born to do. Although the still life the teacher had constructed was hardly inspirational, Nayo found a way to glean shapes, textures and colours. Even if it’s not right in front of your eyes, you can still find a way to trace the undiscovered correspondences, the true lines and natural curves, the light and the shade, and the moments of contact, the rise and inevitable fall. That afternoon, he became totally absorbed in his task. The rest of the world blurred into the background.
This time, it wasn’t a hand but a breath that interrupted his reverie. A soft, sweet sharp breath followed by a gasp.
‘How can you turn that into this?’ asked José. The fact he was impressed was undisguised.
Nayo felt a shyness overwhelm him but knew that in this moment, appearances were all.
He smiled at José as a modest means of accepting praise. He turned his body round a little further. Their eyes locked and
Nayo felt himself swim.
‘If you look hard enough, you always find what you need,’ he said and realised that unknowingly, he’d said something profound.
I never meant to bump into you in the supermarket with my mask on. Your eyes were a dead giveaway. I once imagined abandoning you in the frozen food section before resentment had time to thaw.
Our first kiss. On that hillside. On a cold winter’s day.
Excited messages, back and forth, like we couldn’t keep our fingers off each other. Smiley faces, love hearts, delightedly laughing out loud.
Lazing around in the mornings at the weekends. Tracing the outline of your body so precisely then clutching you close.
Frantically grabbing my clothes in that crazy mad dash to run out of your door, catch that bus, apologise to my boss with a smile.
When we settled together, in the same space, we still glanced towards each other. I watched you taking your time as you scrutinised the pasta so it turned out exactly as you wanted. I caught your gaze as I was focusing so precisely on that sketch which I’d nearly finished. It was that drawing I did of you.
The seasons fluttered by and once you came home with a wheelbarrow full of books you’d picked up from a second-hand store on the periphery of town. You were dripping wet as you tipped out your goodies on to the new rug we’d bought. We had to leave War and Peace to dry out as it got almost destroyed in the rainstorm. We replaced the rug and I made you pay.
When you were deep in concentration, you used to tap the back of your hand on the table incessantly. There was a melody to your oblivion. It was you. It was very you. Then the headaches started and I had to increase my painkillers to two.
I had a mug. A souvenir from my one and only trip to New York. There was a slow-motion moment when your sleeve caught the handle and the silly memento smashed into a thousand smithereens. I fetched the dustpan and broom.
When you walked away for the final time, I stared at the drawing. Your naked body, crouched in charcoal. I tore at every piece of your flesh. I tore and tore and tore.
Surprised, and looking directly into your eyes, I clung tightly to my shopping trolley. I saw your naked body, etched in my mind with the years of shaping it in my hands. I saw your naked body, curled up, sleeping, between the cornflakes, the pomegranates and the soft-melting brie.
‘Fancy meeting you here,’ I smiled.
Are you having a laugh, my man?
There hasn’t been a bus
round these parts
and even then
you’d be lucky
to catch the last one
Do you remember
seemed stretched out tight
and all our yesterdays
in fresh-creased newspaper?
Don’t hold your breath, pal
There’s none of us
can see the past
Don’t hold your breath, pal
The sky’s still overcast
It was the same
A Tree 
The Edwin Morgan Centenary Collection https://www.speculativebooks.net/shop/em100
stark and naked
against a shivering sky
points to desolation
Have the gypsies been buried alive yet?
Have bulldozers pushed enough bodies
into mass graves?
Does this amount to arson
for the Lord’s sake?
The motionless isle of death.
What’s happened to all the flying saucers?
Have the Martians joined the peace talks?
What use, what use, is patience
forced out in such a sigh?
Ray lives in Sheffield, England. He was born in 1949 and started writing tiny stories around 1956. His Jewish childhood was spent with the uncomfortable feeling that there were serious gaps in his family (as most had died in Auschwitz just before he was born). At the same time, he also began composing music and still has a piece written on pencil-drawn staves for piano (simple chords) and paper bag (representing falling leaves) entitled ‘Autumn’. His music is published by the impressive-sounding Mozart Edition company: you can hear pieces on YouTube.
Although various 'serious' pieces of his writing were published when he was younger, it was back in the 1990s when he returned to writing poetry (he'd won prizes when younger) and was even awarded a few very welcome quid when winning a competition with the following piece:
The moorland wind’s refrain climbed to a climax
until the choir, breathless, sank to a whispered prayer.
The starlit night’s voice spoke to the tiny packs
of undergrowth creatures poised, silently, there.
I watched the light beams, hurled from a massive sun
some sixty million years before - a missive sent to speak
to the pterodactyls in a darkening sky as they spun
bat-like threads of terror under the shadow of a razor-beak.
And I, who faithfully believed that the demons could never return,
witnessed a requited requiem, a longed-for consummation
as the gentle burst of photons flicked the shivering strands
of fading ferns that stretched beyond the dry-stone wall
like the skeletal remains of rats, velociraptors and prey
tangled through an ancient history. And at that second,
in that cemetery, with the infinitesimal spark of final meeting,
a consecrated act of creation, the next era began.
More recently, I have started regarding the world around us as requiring a gentler touch to enable us to survive the unprecedented awfulness of our national and international political 'leaders' (so-called as an unintentional witticism as most are mere wicked and/or stupid followers of genuinely evil people).
Here’s one of my recent attempts at verse:
The Food Of Love
My love has startling eyes, silver grey
with a trace of oyster pink in the day
which seem to darken in the night -
young grouse fearful of taking flight.
Her little ears are mushroom white.
Her hair is black but soufflé light
above her heavenly head. I reach
to touch her cheeks of perfect peach.
Her muscles are firm as ripe courgettes
and flame into life like crêpes suzettes.
Her sensual breasts are raspberries and cream.
Her flawless back gleams – bream in a stream.
Each limb is like a long légume
a subtle delicacy to consume.
Of some parts of her body I often dream,
they are mature and moist as aubergines.
But she has suddenly disappeared:
the police say that the worst is feared.
They put out an urgent public appeal.
She was last seen at our evening meal.
I like short pieces with a little twist in the tail. Here are a couple that I doubt if anyone will want to publish:
"I don't understand," he admitted to his brother.
"Don't worry," came the response, "it will all become clear tonight."
That evening, he was to be entered into the Ancient Brotherhood. Nobody knew how far back the Brotherhood went, but its initiation ceremony was full of bizarre rituals that only seemed to make sense to initiates.
"Do we have a leader?" he had asked his brother.
"No, not really. Normally, one brother stands out in the fraternity and is recognised."
"Do we have elections?" "No, not in living memory."
"Shall I be given a secret name?" "Stop asking questions. You were like this at Bar Mitzvah classes, but I'm no rabbi. The ceremony will explain itself."
His brother was short with him, but this was understandable. He was a busy man, with many people coming and going to do business with him. But now he was going to introduce him into the secrets of initiation, so his questions would be answered. He imagined a Society dedicated to Liberty, Equality, Fraternity; but knew that the Brotherhood was a lot older than the 18th century. He puzzled his way back through all the brothers in history and ended up thinking of himself as a dreaming Joseph guiding the Brotherhood, and the World, through seven years of famine with his prophetic insights. He enjoyed these daydreams but was cut short by his brother telling him to get ready to leave.
The hall was darkened so you could not see the walls from the candle-lit circle of chairs in the centre. Men guarded the doors, and an armed escort had accompanied the brothers to their places. He was not permitted to sit but stood by a small table in the middle of the circle. He was aware of the many members of the Society taking their places but could not watch them because of the blindfold. He waited, impatiently. Eventually, his own brother called out and the handkerchief was removed from his eyes. His brother told him to look down at the table where he would see the oath which he was to read out. It was very long and involved swearing eternal allegiance to the fraternal faith, submission to the will of the Ancient Brotherhood, lifelong love for the friends he would make here, and the tearing of some of his clothes. Nearing the end of his reading, the guard beside him silently placed a capsule upon the table. He was ordered to swallow the little pill. As he did so, the men throughout the room began to hum. It started very low and quiet, but gradually grew into a many-layered chant whose intensity increased until he felt that it was bursting from within his head. He started to hallucinate. He was told that he would find out who he was in his dreams: the Brotherhood had started to chant words, but he could not focus on what they were. Pictures and time rolled before him as he realised what they were saying. "What is your name? What is your name? What is your name?" Suddenly he seized the automatic pistol from his startled guard and shot his brother through the head. "I am Cain," he cried. There was total silence in the hall as his brother's body rolled to the floor. He stepped over it and took his seat as the Brotherhood started to applaud.
Sometimes someone you think you know well can surprise you. My mum waited until I was quite old before she sprung her surprise. She and my dad had lived in their anonymous semi-detached house ever since I was born. The street was round the corner from my school where I did quite well in science (I was always rubbish at writing). My dad encouraged me to study computer science as he said he had always found work as a computer technician. He had met my mum whilst at college where she was on the same course. And there were times that she helped me with my problems: but she tended to leave difficult questions for my dad when he got home from work.
The town where we lived, Middleton (not its real name) had few redeeming features. I asked my mum why they had chosen to set up home here. She said she valued her privacy, and it was all they could afford at the time. As an only child, I felt close to my parents. I liked the fact that there was a set routine to the day with my mum constantly at home and my dad leaving for work at seven thirty and returning without fail at six o’clock. I remember that there were odd times when my mum would disappear for a couple of days and my dad would take those days off. I would ask her where she had been. And she would invariably answer, “Up to town to see about a few things.”
What was my mum known for in our street? She liked to cook and contributed cakes to the local fair where food was sold to support the school or hospital. Neighbours liked to buy what she had made as they said she had a flair for kitchen work; and she would agree that this was her main talent. When I was very young, she would walk me to school and chat with the other mums about the problems of bringing up youngsters on a restricted budget, the inclemency of the weather, and gossip concerning women on the next street.
One year my dad announced we were going abroad for a holiday to Genevieve (not its real name). We had never left the country before, so I was excited. The flight found me glued to the window watching the landscape far below until it disappeared beneath cloud. We stayed in a hotel that was so plush that I could not even hear my own footsteps in the carpet. Walking down a side street the next day, we went into a little bank to withdraw money. We were the only customers and my mum spoke to the clerk behind the counter in a foreign language. As we left, she said to me “I call this place the Belch bank”. I thought this was very funny. I burped and my dad laughed. But my mum shook her head and said, “one day you will appreciate Belch.”
I was forty when my mum sprung her surprise. My dad had just retired, and they were talking about moving house. My wife and I lived only a few doors away and our children loved to play in their grandparents’ garden. My dad said they would not go far away as they wanted to stay close to us and see the kids whenever they could. But they wanted a quieter home as they were finding the street quite noisy. I asked if I could help and if they had enough money to afford a place in the country. My dad shook his head and said something like “well it seems your mum has a little nest egg so we should be okay.” Later that day my mum took me aside. “I’ve not told you about my little nest egg before and even your dad does not really know much about it. But I think you ought to know about it now.”
What she told me was such a shock that I have never really recovered. In fact, the reason I am writing this note to you all is to try to gain some advice about what I should do. Apparently, my mum was no ordinary computer technician student when she met my dad. She had already created the program that successfully extracted tiny amounts that existed when currency was exchanged between banks. The amounts were so infinitesimally small that no one had noticed their disappearance. For every thousand transactions, a cent was built up in one of her accounts. She had implanted her program in all banks throughout the world and had been earning several illegal billion dollars every year. She bought a private bank into which all her ill-gotten gains were deposited. She called it BELCH, short for the Bank for the Extraction of Loose Change. She was, by some considerable margin, the wealthiest person on the planet and, by the purchase of shares through a network of dummy investment corporations, owned a majority shareholding in many of the world’s best-known companies. However, she had taken steps from the earliest days to ensure that her anonymity was protected. In fact, she said that I was the only person other than her accountant in BELCH to know of the extent of her riches. “Now I am retiring,” she concluded; “you need to know as you are now the owner of BELCH and, therefore, the owner of all the companies in which I have invested.”
My parents now live happily in a pleasant bungalow not far from Middleton (not its real name). I have continued to work as a computer technician without revealing our family secret. My multi-national employer, Alac O’coc (not its real name), knows nothing of my immense wealth and I am careful not to make any unusually expensive purchases. To my knowledge, my mum’s program is still piling billions of dollars into the BELCH accounts every year. The accountants keep buying more and more of the world’s shares: I suspect that I own Alac O’coc as well as its main competitor, Pispe (not its real name). I have said nothing to my wife and children. However, I am beginning to wonder whether I might be able to do something positive with all these riches: but without compromising the family’s reputation for honesty and hard work. Has anyone any suggestions?
Honky Rodman (not my real name)
David Patten was born and raised in London. After years of backpacking he settled in the US in his late twenties, first living in Boston for many years, and then moving to Denver where he now resides. David has always loved language and words. He wrote stories as a young man and has now recommitted to it later in life. He really enjoys the flash and micro genre and has had some good success getting his work published online. To David, books and stories are art and he has the utmost respect for those involved in the craft.
A landscape of mud. Thick, invasive. Like a disease it spreads and clings, fuelled by the autumn rains that have pummelled the endless fields of Flanders. Now, with the onset of winter, comes a hardening as the frigid air coats the mud with a shell, until the next thaw once more releases it.
Unforgiving, this landscape. Nothing to redeem the harsh shades of brown and black. Bruised and brooding, the low December sky rolls over the battlefields, resolute in its indifference. Wood frames and sandbags encased in grime as they give shape and symmetry to the network of trenches. Horses, limbs in a tomb of clay, stand forlorn in deep puddles. Just beyond the horizon the charred and jagged edges of Ypres.
No nature’s song here, the birds long exiled by artillery that has gouged the land into submission. Young men, adversaries in a conflict they don’t understand, dwell a hundred yards apart in deep man-made fissures. Tomorrow arrives a counterpoint to challenge the malevolence, the first since hostilities began. Christmas Eve.
Two privates from one of the Welsh regiments were the first to notice. Through the periscope they spotted dozens of small beacons along the top of the German trench. Candles, the tiny flames reaching out into the twilight. Word spread and soon the British trench is abuzz, soldiers queuing to look through the viewfinder with disbelieving eyes.
The barrage ceases, a dissonant sound punctures the air. The Germans are singing carols.
The following morning an impromptu and unauthorized gathering, as ragged and weary men from both trenches converge on the sludge and frozen earth of no man’s land. Many remain concealed though, distrustful yet with an uneasy gratitude for the lull. Men roll cigarettes, make small talk. A German officer breaks open a bottle of Schnapps.
Somebody kicks a ball high into the air and a disorganized game ensues. Laughter and handshakes as these men, thrown together as combatants on Belgian soil, cling resolutely to life.
The day after. No more gatherings, the carol singers now quiet. A steady rain has erased the candles. Officers in both trenches bark orders, using their boots to shake men out of reverie. The screech of ordnance as a shell hits no man’s land, sending shrapnel in search of targets. In both trenches young men press hard into the sandbags, their lives once more in the balance.
If Looks Could Kill
Perseus had been spending time in Sicily and the Italian mainland. Pasta, wine, caprese. When your father is Zeus it’s a filial duty to oversee operations in the Mediterranean. Not one to usually procrastinate, Perseus was wrestling with this latest assignment, the hit on Medusa. Since he was a boy he’d had an acute phobia of snakes, so that was going to be something of a problem.
Naturally, Medusa’s reputation proceeded her, so the inhabitants fled Karpathos for the neighboring islands of Rhodes and Crete once word of her approach had been received. For five years now the small isle in the Southern Aegean had been hers alone. Walks on the beach, exploring coves, collecting shells, and a steady diet of olives, feta, and vegetables from her garden. Despite the seclusion, exile had its benefits.
Blue skies, ocean salt in the air. Medusa finishes threading wire through the holes in the butterflies she’d inadvertently turned to stone that morning. Now it’s a wind chime. In her solitude she’d learned to control her power, but still had lapses. A large shadow passes across Medusa’s face, a bird of prey swooping in and alighting on one of the pine trees in the statue garden. One of Athena’s owls. A trusted companion of Medusa from when she was in service to the goddess. Since the banishment it has come to the island regularly.
Someone is coming for you, it says.
Medusa nods, trailing a hand over the owl’s feathers, damp from spray. A few of the snakes get too curious, the owl pecking at them. Perseus, it adds.
Medusa withdraws her hand. My half-brother Perseus? The owl confirms. His quest is to return with your head. The snakes hiss and snarl. Medusa allows a brief smile. It’ll be good to see him again. The owl hops onto her shoulder and they head out for a stroll along the cliffs.
Clear day, crystals of sunlight on the calm Aegean. Perseus has been rowing since dawn. Now he rests facing the island, the tide pulling him toward the beach. Crags scattered with vegetation rise up from the sand. Above, shielded by pine trees, Medusa watches her assassin. The snakes are restless, quarrelsome, as if they already sense his apprehension.
On the ascent Perseus’ sandals send loose rock and gravel over the edge of the path. Turned to scrub and grass at the clifftop, he steps over a fellow Spartan, entombed by Medusa’s gaze, sword and shield still at the ready. In front of him a small house fronted by a garden of statues, silent companions. A breeze stirs wind chimes. From the roof an owl watches Perseus’ cautious approach.
Perseus! Social visit? At her voice he whirls around slashing at the air with his sword, shield falling to the ground. He recoils, caught in her gaze. Paralyzed by his phobia, Perseus stands rigid, eyes closed. Close enough to smell her half-brother’s fear, Medusa traces a finger over his face. I’ve learned to control my power. She speaks softly. So, you are not a permanent addition to the garden. Two of the snakes break free of the mass to menace the intruder. As they slither around his neck Perseus faints.
Medusa’s head looks defiant. Mouth and eyes wide open with rage, the snakes twisted and vengeful. Perseus places it in a sack and secures the opening.
You’re taking a risk. What if it fools nobody? Medusa is working on a plate of olives and cheese, holding up occasional pieces for the snakes to squabble over.
It will, says Perseus. It’s his fourth week on the island. His half-sister has cured him of his phobia. In return he has fashioned a reasonable facsimile of her from mud, clay, and pigments. He cannot return empty handed.
The owl will give me word, Medusa says, standing and pulling him into an embrace. Sinewy, the snakes burrow through his hair. They part and Perseus gathers sword, shield, and the sack. On the beach he places them in the boat and looks back up the cliff. Medusa raises a hand in farewell. He does the same.
Art and Politics
Its journey complete, the Norwegian tanker anchored out in the Gulf near the entrance to the Mexican port town of Tampico. The January day was blustery, the water choppy. Huddled on the dock, the welcoming party: police officers, government officials, Frida Kahlo. A sturdy boat brings Trotsky and his wife ashore, their final stop after a decade of exile. Kahlo greets them as if they were old friends, ushers them onto the president’s personal train for the half day trip to the capital where her husband, Diego, waits.
Lenin’s untimely death had robbed Trotsky of an important ally in the struggle to keep the fledgling Soviet state true to the ideology. Stalin fell for the seduction of absolute power. Trotsky was an obstacle. Too outspoken, too respected as one of the revolution’s original architects. Exile provided a practical solution. Leon and Natalia embarked on an uneasy confinement across Europe and Scandinavia before the Mexican artists petitioned their president.
Like a Jackson Pollock, Kahlo and Rivera’s relationship was messy, colorful, complicated. A pairing of leftist artists, the boundaries of expression and convention purposely blurred. Marxists both, a celebrity of the revolution now in their midst whom they could offer safe harbor at la casa azul, the blue house.
Cobalt inside and out, the house occupied a corner hidden among palms and tropical plants. The tranquility enhanced with birdsong and the rhythm of water fountains. Leon and Natasha explored the cool interior filled with the artists’ work and indigenous collections. They hugged, feeling a world away from Europe’s new turmoil and Stalin’s malevolence.
The flirtations were not discreet, even if the trysts at Frida’s sister’s house were an attempt at such. With conditions of moral ambiguity there was an inevitability to the jealousy, pouting, recriminations; a general souring of relationships. Trotsky ended the affair with their host and he and Natalia left the blue house for a smaller one in the same neighborhood.
For the artists personal safety trumped ideology. Stalin ruled by fear and anyone aligned with Trotsky was the enemy by association. In an uncertain world of fickle alliances, Kahlo and Rivera distanced themselves. The writing was on the wall.
A summer downpour leaves its humidity to linger. Birds emerge from shelter, making announcements. A young man arrives at the house carrying documents. He is known, trusted, having spent a full year selling the disguise. He enters Trotsky’s study, Frida’s self portrait still on the wall above the desk. Leon takes the documents to the window for better light. The young man reaches into his jacket and grips the cold iron of the ice pick.
It took fifty of the strongest men to pull the two-story structure through the western gate of Troy. The width had inches to spare but part of the ramparts had to be removed to accommodate the neck and head of the impressive wooden horse. The siege had lasted a decade, but now the Greeks retreated back to the fleet anchored in the Aegean, leaving the horse as an offering to Athena. The return of peace.
Jostling, shoving, Trojans thronged to see the powerful stallion, pride restored. They lit fires, cooked food. Wine flowed. The historical event too late for Homer and his Iliad, but a prize for Virgil’s later tales.
Night. Embers strewn like cat’s eyes, revelry now just echoes in the stone walls. Soft thuds as Odysseus and his men emerge from the low belly of the beast and drop to the ground, weapons drawn. Gates opened for the returned Greeks, deception complete. With awe two children are observing Odysseus, believing him to be an emissary of Athena. He approaches them, holding a finger to his lips, bidding silence. Kneeling now. “Can you keep a secret?”
The dull pitched-roof building invited in the cold. After all, it was still just a big abandoned barn, the scent of livestock and feed lingering. Two large industrial heaters worked hard to expel the winter air, but most people kept on jackets and coats, hands clutching Styrofoam cups of hot chocolate that quickly grew lukewarm. The adversity made the church experience somehow more authentic.
The pastors, two boyhood friends from the Midwest, had been called to plant a church in Colorado. In response, they rolled the dice and put the contents of their lives into moving trucks. If you were called to something, then faith had to override caution and even logic, as the ending has already been written.
The two-year lease on the unused barn was not unreasonable, but still drained a good chunk of the pastors’ savings. The unconventional can be a draw for people, and attending a new church in a drafty barn at the top of a dying Wild West theme park could certainly lay claim to that. After sermons you could ride the teacups or stand behind cut outs of cowboys for a souvenir mugshot. When naming things in the Denver metro a passing nod to the Rocky Mountains, which define the city, is always a safe bet. Mountain Valley church had found its eccentric niche.
This is how we do church, they said. No frills. An inconvenient drive to the western edges of town where the wind blew stronger and the snow fell harder. These guys are just like us, they said of the pastors: family men with mortgages and truck payments who watched Monday Night Football. The following multiplied.
Mountain Valley outgrew its modest home. By the end of the lease it was standing room only, now with three services to accommodate everyone. A new location was announced: an old theater in a leafy affluent suburb, with proper seating, lighting, and acoustics. Grand opening on Labor Day weekend. Balloons, hot dogs, burgers, and a bouncy castle. Local people came looking smart and comfortable in their golf apparel, curious about the edgy new church. Others wore sweats and Broncos jerseys, making a point of telling strangers they’d been with Mountain Valley since its old barn days up in the hills.
Thriving continued. Word was out about the hip church with its self-deprecating and charismatic pastors who were all about connecting the message to everyday life. Pastors so passionate about their calling that they’d set up a church in an old barn with no heating. People started putting Mountain View decals in their car windows.
Apparently, a church could be referred to as a campus. Two years after abandoning the theme park Mountain Valley now had three campuses around town, each with four Sunday services to choose from. Plush stadium seating, ushers, parking attendants, sound and recording engineers, polished worship band that made albums for Spotify. There was a youth ministry, prison outreach program, and even talk of opening a campus in Texas. Starbucks coffee was available in the foyer, and you could get all your Mountain Valley gear at the campus merchandise store. Should you be unable to attend a service in person, you could livestream it through the app.
Local celebrities now, the pastors attended a weeklong conference in New York, returning with sharp fades, scripture tattoos, and torn jeans. Personal assistant to the pastoral staff was now a job title. The congregation would stand and applaud the pastors’ arrival on stage, as if it were a late-night talk show. Broncos jerseys were no longer a thing at Mountain View.
Unexpected fame exacts a toll. One of the pastors took an indefinite sabbatical, citing burnout. The other endured a career ending disgrace when a young woman interrupted a service with accusations of inappropriate conduct. The fall out exposed financial irregularities and a toxic culture among staff. Interim leadership was replaced by rising stars from Georgia; a dynamic married couple with plans for a Mountain Valley TV channel. The gravy train rolled on.
Mehreen Ahmed is a prolific, prizewinning author based in Australia. She has written seven books and the eighth is in the pipeline. Mehreen considers writing to be the ultimate freedom of the mind. Unleashing thoughts is like unburdening oneself. It serves both a subjective and an objective purpose. Getting published and entertaining readers is thrilling, of course; and contributing to world literature. However, on a subjective level, writing sharpens the thinking process; and the ability to be incisive is both transformational and exhilarating. Mehreen’s latest collection of short stories is entitled ‘Gatherings’:
Blue Butterflies [Published by Bridge House, UK 2021]
The wars ate the 14-year-olds. Such were the days, when young boys wielded swords and died on these dusts. Politicians drunk in the revelry of power and greed, sent more and more elderly and the young to join the army to fight senseless battles in the name of the King. Unbeknownst to whose wars they fought, these soldiers were the perfect cannon fodder, some many moons ago under the hot suns and rising sands of the desert Gulaag. Made up of rippled sand dunes and sporadic barrel cacti, this was ideal land for battles.
At a time like this, a baby boy was born. His name was Hajji. His mother named him alone because his father was taken by the imperial force long before his birth. He grew up with his mother without much opulence or opportunity. This small town, in eastern Gulaag, where they lived, was on the border between two warring kingdoms. The wars far from over, the godforsaken Gulaag couldn’t be appeased any time soon. Royal armies fed on the vulnerable, as did their sinful paymasters. This ever-hungry beast; no number of humans, camels, or horses was enough to satisfy the bottomless gut of this stunning desert.
Hajji and his mother’s fate were tied up with the Gulaag. She lived in constant fear like every other mother on the land, afraid that the army would come after their sons. Hajji had just turned twelve. Jainab surveilled him around the clock and kept him close. Occasionally, she’d send him out on errands to tend the sheep, far into the desert.
Today, in the pale light of the first morning sun, Hajji took off. He took his flock from the shed at the back of their mud house and headed towards the Gulaag. The army slept at these hours. He walked nearly a quarter of a mile into the desert when he saw a great number of tents strewn across. Soldiers rested in those tents from a long night’s war-cries, the Gulaag at their feet lay like a sleeping giant. Hajji walked over the placid sands ahead of his herd. Then he heard a small cry beyond one of the rippled dunes. Hajji stopped. It was a feeble cry, almost a whimper. It didn’t sound like a human voice. He began to follow the sound. It was a human voice. There was a boy here about his age, crawling over sand slides. He appeared wounded and famished. Many cuts and bruises beset his little body. Hajji ran over and sat down by his side.
The Handmaiden [Published by October Hill Magazine, USA, 2021]
Séance was the handmaiden to unveiling unsolved mysteries. Mother readily dissipated in the night sky. Eliza thought how time had eluded the players of all times, of its own sly endgames, that it was deployed to play everyone big time.; who played whom in these games?, tThe mundane bickering, spun out of the threads of life, were largely controlled by the unseen Moirai.
Existence, after all, was a passing reality. Who wrote this narrative? Billions of years in processing, these metamorphosed fossils were; an illusion, a conundrum of plays, full-on deadly swings of lies, of lures, and of profiteering; love giveth and taketh away in death. Only the blind seers had perceived; never the queens nor the kings of the day. Alas! When was a full mMoon ever sighted from the surface of the Moon itself? Only from this mortal world did its beacon glimmer; Hamlet had caught the king’s conscience in his play.
The Lights [Published by Flash Boulevard, USA, 2021]
Who was I? What was I? I have drunk from the topped cup, and halved the water down, to trick them into believing that the full bodied life was a reality. Or like a band aid to a wound, I had drunk from a cup of solace for my aggrieved friends to make them believe that in death I was living. But I was — who I was —- much larger than life or this sprite; I was a part of that mystifying magic of nuanced lights, not just the energy potions packed into this leaking body which appeared to be, I. The boatman was right. I must go. Half cup lures must cease to chase a fuller consciousness of the deceased; being a part of which was the real, I. That was my home far beyond.
jm summers hails from South Wales where he is employed as an IT Consultant. His stories and poems have appeared in outlets both large and small including Another Country from Gomer Press. The curious should check out Niamh available from Amazon. He edited the small magazines Ah Pook Is Here and Barfly in the 90's, described as seeking work from people who write and not writers, and currently blogs on the i newspaper's puzzles. He follows in a long tradition of writers who would prefer to be doing anything else but continue to do so compulsively anyway. Odd stories and imagery that sometimes intrigue and sometimes haunt him are what he's trying to get over, the shorter form being as close to an ideal fit as he's found to date. Half formed ideas for another book are a current work in progress.
I asked how it had been, but it had, he said, been as if nothing at all. He lit a cigarette. The momentary flare caught the sharp edges of cheek bones, sunken eyes, as if he was still ill in the way he had been. The wind sent scraps of rubbish skipping along the pavement. The amber glow of streetlights that made everything sickly looking. I’d been half expecting him to return now that summer had passed. We sat and drank coffee. The window was a little grubby. Thick, oily waves heaved onto the sand. The smell of yesterday’s chips. I remember, he said, how it was between us. The bitter tang of blood in the morning, the taste of old tobacco and stale whisky and something rotten. He reached for another cigarette. Sudden light made shadows leap up the wall. His eyes, empty of anything but my own reflection. Afterwards we lay in bed, and it was the taste of him still, that of my own disgust. Light cast from the alarm clock, the rise and fall of his chest. Angular, jutting ribs. I traced the line where the razor had cut. Blood dark, thick as oil running into the sink. Longways, he had said, that way they will not be able to sew it back up. I did not know if this was true. The scars looked fresh, livid, as if it had been only yesterday. When he awoke, I asked if he had dreamed, but he had not. He switched the light on. The bare bulb flickered. Electricity, as if a redness filled the room. Touch me, he said, but when I did, he did not stir. He asked how it had been at the end, and I told him that it had been as if nothing at all. Pills, hot water. The feel of his lips on mine, how quickly they had gotten cold. A young couple walked by outside, hand in hand, earnestly in love. The lights across the bay a broad sweep now that night had fallen. The dull swish of waves on the shore, his breath. I remembered the way his body had hung in the wardrobe, the belt tight around his neck. How he had retched over the carpet when the pills began to take effect. The way he struggled beneath me the pillow held firmly across his mouth and nose. The colour of his flesh when his body had washed up on the shore. The taste of his blood when I bit into the flesh, how it ran over my lips, its rank odour. I asked him again about afterwards, but there had been no afterwards. Just the opportunity to repeat the same old mistakes, minor variations on a theme. I pressed a hand to the glass. The damp feel of it, condensation running down the pane. The imprint it left faded quickly. Clouds rolled across a moonless sky.
When she thought of the baby it was of how it would burn. It mewled in her arms, experimenting with the possibility of motion. Through the locked door scratching as of something seeking entrance, voices. When the wind blew it shook the bare walls, floorboards. She sat on the mattress, her thoughts the colour of the leaves that were beginning to turn brown and fall, evenings that grew darker with each passing day. The air was harsh, biting. The baby shivered. She wrapped it in blankets and hugged it until she shook too. When she slept it was to the sound of voices and when she woke too from dreams in which she walked along a dark shoreline, waves rolling thick with oil onto a beach awash with dead fish and encrusted sea birds, salt air that caught at the back of her throat and made her gag. Her arms were still bloody, the sheets and blankets too. Against the light of the bare bulb fingers splayed, their movement spasmodic like those of her thoughts. They had asked about the father, but she did not know about the father. Whether the baby had a name, but when she tried to think of one the reality of it slipped away from her, a formless thing. It clutched feebly for milk, a look in its eyes as of an absence already. When she slept it was dark and when she woke too, long hours until pale, insipid light spilt through the glass from dreams through which a cold wind blew. From behind the door voices, questions. Bare feet on bare boards. She held the baby with one hand, pressed the other against the wall as if it might ground her, but the feel of it against her breast was as of something burning already, an absence that was the emptiness she felt inside, a loss already realised. She slept, and then she did not, from dreams of crisp leaves underfoot, late autumn, a sky grey though without discernible clouds, drifting smoke. A moth flapped against the bare burning bulb. When she cupped it in her hands to set it free its wings crumbled to dust between her fingers, no matter the lightness of her touch.
She took his hand as if for the first and the last time too. The cherry blossom had opened that day, its colour that of her thoughts, of the morning sky in which a pale moon lingered. Dew still wet on the grass under her bare feet, goosebumps, fleetingly on her arms. When she woke the startling blue of his eyes. A bee, as if it were the first, attracted by the newly blossomed forsythia, still flowering snowdrops, daffodils, budding tulips. It was newness, it was change, it was waking from the slumber of winter, the casting off of things grown stale and the waking to new. Now it will be different, he told her. They woke to a room empty but for a bed and chest of drawers, bare walls and carpet, windows without curtains. Because there was no one else, empty fields for as far as she could see and as far as she knew. The bathroom with the dripping tap. The smell of things old, grown musty with disuse, lacking in ways she could not express. The love between them defined by an absence. It was in the dreams that came to her, things that must once have seemed ordinary. Another’s touch. It was all that he said would be theirs one day when winter had passed. Look, he said, and his words were the colour of a dawn newly broken, the shade too of night when it was at its darkest. All she thought she knew, the potential for change, possibilities hitherto undreamed of, apple blossom ephemeral as the moon, his touch when he passed. He put his hand to her stomach and felt for movement, his ear to listen, breath warm on her skin. Now it was time, he said, and when they kissed, she felt his breath as if it were her own. Folded him in her arms till only the thin linen of her dress separated their bodies, pregnant with the possibility of what now could be. An owl cried though the sky was bright for all that had passed, all it had thought certain, all that it thought it knew. The world become new, all that he had been, and her too.
They felt it one afternoon. A sharpness in the air, a chill where there had not been. The wind rolled down from the hilltop where at night the cross burned as if it was spring and as if the change that was coming was one that might be welcomed. She picked a leaf from the ground and it was brown and it was crisp and it crumbled between her fingers. Took his hand and saw how the skin had become creased and the change in his eyes, a sadness where there had not been. In the mornings the light was pale, in the evenings in the window their reflections. The scratching of bare branches on the glass. It was the steps she took and the way he followed. The growth in her belly. A room that was still without doors, but one that threatened to trap rather than free her. She walked through the grass, barefoot as she always had, but the ground felt damp under foot, and wasps buzzed angrily. Clouds gathered threateningly in the sky, heavy with rain and impending fall. When she woke it was to the drip of water from a pipe onto stone. He coughed when he woke, and at night too, blood on his handkerchief. She ran a finger across his chest where ribs showed sharply, painfully. His cheeks were sunken and his eyes too. She put his hand to her belly so that he might feel the baby kick, but he said that he did not. Placed a vase of flowers on the table, but they did not last and the smell as they rotted was at once pungent and at the same time beautiful. She did not move them even when the water began to turn green, caught up in inertia. This is the way it is, he told her. The end of the summer and the coming of autumn, the world turning on its axis once more, the change that will come between us, consume us. The walls were bare and the floor and the bed and her thoughts too, his absence then an ordinary thing. The space where he had lain, the clothes he had worn. A gull cried, because summer was passing, because of change, for the absence of the sea. Damp in the morning-time, practiced pain that was an ending too. Dew on her tongue, fall. A reflection in the glass that looked older, pale, dark circles around the eyes. Someone else altogether, somebody new. In the dreams her belly was hollow but for the cancer that was change of a more permanent kind. She put a hand to the glass and felt the condensation there. Closed her eyes and practised oblivion, slept but without dreaming. Opened her eyes to emptiness, a well-rehearsed absence.
Because it was spring again, and it was expected that he should. The wind blew from the pale frost covered hillside and he did not. Because it was spring again, and she was not. The apple tree had begun to blossom that day, a fact that existed without context or meaning that he could attach to it, abstract as the warm sunshine, the flowers in the rockery that had begun to blossom. He closed his eyes and the darkness there was differentiated only by the clearer lines it offered, dreams that were of nothing in particular though distinct in form from the days that blurred one into the next, days not favoured one over the other, but rather disliked in different ways. He looked for the something that he should be feeling. Change, awakening, a sign that winter had passed and something new begun, what it could be that was missing. But the answer was one that was uncertain, something unplaced, the impossibility that life would feel normal again. Because it was spring on the hillside a cross blazed, but the promise it offered lasted only for as long it was lit. Because it was spring, and today would be the same as yesterday and the same as tomorrow, and what had been would not again. Because it was spring. Because.
Ian C Smith
Ian C Smith currently resides in Sale, Victoria, Australia. He is a prolific, prize-winning writer and his poetry, fiction, essays and reviews have appeared in a vast array of journals, online sites, books, radio etc. Despite all this, he feels he has wasted too much life and would love another crack at it. He compiles records, counts everything, is obsessed with writing and has a fear of forgetting.
Since he was a boy, accounts - books, movies, documentaries - of artists' struggles – male or female - have inspired him, whether they be writers, painters, choreographers - any form of artistic striving. When he was young, he believed this other world, the artistic community, couldn't possibly be his, but he feels he was wrong. Another inspiration is his work being published alongside not only established writers, but also with newer writers' work, young or old.
Conversations with the Navigator [first published in ‘Griffith Review’]
Walking alone, Roaring Forties buffeting our island, my haphazard heart cast away, I see Matthew’s sloop split the strait. I pick up a fragile paper nautilus, broken, as most of those washed up are, watch his sails billow my way, gulls’ cries, landfall’s geology, at least, familiar to both of us.
Waves lapping this coast in languid rhythm, I describe wonders taking place during two hectic, insane centuries, regretting my dearth of knowledge, articulate about great books, but awkward, stumbling into slang over the internal combustion engine, its delights, drawbacks, and now, global precarity. Electronic finance, the Internet, and the camera that is now a mobile phone, also expose my ignorance of basal principles.
Lichened rocks, horizon, dwarf us as we swap binoculars for telescope. To this brave Lincolnshire cartographer whose love waits on our Earth’s far flank, who understands separation, I suggest the consolation of rum hoping to ease us both into darker details concerning the shame of what became of the local mutton-birders.
Cruising in Sister’s Passage, past terrain sighted by Matthew, he refers to sealers’ rough habits. We had seen the recent suicide’s plane, a crumpled white rag spreadeagled below Mt. Killiecrankie’s dark crags. He understands suicide but, ah! powered flight. Wonder lights his eyes as I pause unhooking a salmon into the esky’s throes, to explain. He knows the name, Wright, as a worthy occupation. I scan for the silver glint of a Sydney-Hobart flight.
A Pacific gull swoops to my trawled lure, hooking itself, wheels above Bass Strait, above us. It would be my form, now, I think, to split this keel on a rock with Matthew, of all mariners, witness. Earlier, he admired my rods as dolphins paced us like a mob of aquatic kangaroos. I reel the bird, a winged animated kite flying for’ard, frantic to be free, with care. Sidestepping along the gunwales, around the cabin to the bow, I wrap it in my arms, earning Matthew’s praise.
The great bird remains majestically still while I twist the hook from its beak. With a low cry it flaps sleekly skyward. Bligh wouldst fain have eaten that, Matthew says, humour in his slight fenland accent rippling like water. The tides be higher. I know, I say, I know.
Damp [first published in ‘Australian Book Review’]
North-west Tasmania, rain like grief, air static,
the Queenstown mining area stark comparison
with the sauced-up colonial cottages we rented
down south where escaped convicts starved, lost,
trivial distances infinite, beyond the atlas.
This sombre outpost drips, black as shell holes.
Runnels of muddied water converge, stream with us,
into the drenched valley, a winding descent
swallowed by a fine mist, wipers on slow now.
Leafless, mid-afternoon, muffled, closed.
I sniff my sleeve, smell mould, or imagine so.
Then a caravan park, no sign of life, just Vacancy.
I know the shelter I want, in the shadows
at the petrified forest’s edge, crows on its roof.
Sunk in a musty pillow I bookmark Richard Flanagan,
wipe condensation from the cobwebbed window.
Moonscape with trees, ground cover sodden brush,
a place where nocturnal animals might vanish.
We calculate how long the money should last.
Does the thylacine survive these haunted roads?
Coffee on a yellowed stove; we could lie low here.
I ponder death by hanging, the malignant past.
Keys [first published in ‘Quadrant’ and ‘Best Australian He He slammed the car door and realised, peering
Keys [first published in ‘Quadrant’ and ‘Best Australian Poetry’]
He at his keys dangling behind the steering
wheel, stranded like memory beyond reach,
he was locked out. He had been scheming to
abandon his family so he felt
agitated. He bashed without a clue
on the window, tried each door, even knelt
like a penitent to squint through the gap
where the door had closed although he knew this
was mad. His wife had guessed, her face a map
of despair. She begged and cursed, tried to kiss
his feet. He hurried away, no tears shed.
While bystanders stared he looked straight ahead.
Ma Johns [first published in ‘Magma’]
I slick down my hair leave at quarter to
eight grab my Gladstone bag set off down
the desolate driveway coastal sand past
the kero drum letterbox where I left
a dead copperhead to scare the mailman
it supposedly writhing for twenty
-four hours I kick through eucalyptus heat
dust flies to Ernie Hough’s lonely crossroads
store wait for Mr Phillips driving his
Bedford from Cranbourne the Lord girl who’ll die
in a wreck Sheila Savage looking good
Catholics staring I slouch aboard join more
savages Bob Marshall who’ll play back flank
for the Swans with a squinty eye damage
his kidneys gets on like a hero
when we arrive in Frankston I have a
quick drag of the quirly I have rolled at
the bus stop then skip assembly music
first up with Old Ruth who is nice but can’t
control us then we have Col Baker who
gives the cuts harder than any despot
throughout history and we have Ma Johns for
art these luminous prints she shows colour
shock jump-starts my heart silencing me.
These Fugitive Days [first published in ‘Descant
These Fugitive Days [first published in ‘Descant’]
I pegged washing, raising
I spread hay for animals,
the old horse that died.
I gave young plants a drink.
I walked the boys
to the school bus
with their grateful dog,
keeping the memory for life.
These things I did,
glad to have the chance.
I stacked the woodbox
ready for winter.
I cut grass
in decreasing circles,
my legs still sturdy.
I ate cheese and gherkins,
recalled the prison
of past mistakes,
skimmed a newspaper,
its date science fiction.
I poured wine and waited,
thought about the boys’ mother
as the light dimmed,
her return from a busy world,
our struggle to understand
the twisted strands of love.
And later we planned
another day just like this,
although we both know
it can’t go on.
Your Hair Was So Yellow [first published in ‘Cordite’ and ‘Best Australian Poetry’]
Here in Great-grandpa’s hut
an invocation of eucalyptus.
Mist appears most mornings on this ridge
caught in rough branches’ cobwebs.
I rebuild what is worth preserving
employing hand tools from the past
my favourite, his antique adze.
Hammering ricochets down the valley
silencing the birds’ barracking.
After bathing in the dam’s bracing water
I love to dry off in the bliss of the sun.
Every few weekends I visit town
for live music at one of many pubs
built when this area thrived on gold.
My fingers tap to fiddle & harmonica.
I observe the usual courtesies
but if asked too many questions
rise and leave, my drink unfinished.
At the hut I play Lou Reed & Tom Waits
read Ondaatje’s poems, or Carver’s
skip rope, punch a bag, snack on cereal.
The Internet meets many needs.
On some days I drive to a distant town
a relief teacher of curious kids.
As night falls wallabies eat my scraps.
All I lack is someone like you
to share the music, to shake out her hair.
Balu Swami lives in the US. His works have appeared in Flash Fiction North, Ink Pantry, Short Kid Stories, and Literary Veganism. He started writing fiction in 2020 during the lockdown and got his first break when John published his piece, ‘Guadalcanal Missile Crisis’. He considers himself a storyteller, not a writer. He likes to tell stories about people and places that are either unfamiliar or at least less-familiar to readers. He wants to tell the stories of a child soldier, a chemical engineer, a pre-historic beast or a post-industrial robot. He delights in the success of online publishing, which he thinks has democratized the world of literature and given people like himself a chance to showcase their works. He is grateful to sites like FFN and editors like John for not only loosening the iron grip of the literati, but also redefining literature in the process.
Excerpts from Balu Swami’s works:
Guadalcanal Missile Crisis (2020)
‘State Department got wind of the project and some deep state denizen protested that protocol demanded buy in from the British since the Queen was the figurative head of state. Buy-in was easier done than said.’
‘The Islands’ Prime Minister was thrilled: a shiny, new hotel as garish as the one in the Old Post Office in DC. But he didn’t say yes immediately. He had to run it by his boss. As he was figuring out how best to package it, the boss called. The message was simple: Don’t do it. Increased US presence would interfere with the Belt and Road infrastructure projects. So, the PM told Trump, Kushner, et.al, to take the project and shelve it.”
Matters of Emma’s Life (2020)
‘Emma’s father was a cop in the local precinct. He gave her two pieces of advice when she was about 12 or 13: Stay away from the goombahs in the neighborhood and study hard and become an engineer. The first advice was easy to follow. She had an innate aversion to the goombah types - the bling and the swagger and the “look at me” narcissism were, for her, a total turn off.’
‘The march from the city center to Washington Park was exuberant and even joyous - something she hadn’t expected given the solemnity of the occasion. Soon she got caught up in the energy and excitement and became part of the crowd. The march was five miles long, but she didn’t feel any exhaustion. At the park, officers from the city police, the county police, state police, park police, military police, the national guard, ICE, and a number of heavily armed plainclothes officers were waiting for them. At 6 pm, the start of the curfew, the crowd was told to disperse and at 6.02, a phalanx of officers started pushing the protesters on the frontline. The crowd that spilled onto the side streets were pushed back into the park by bicycle cops and mounted police only to be met by, in quick succession, smoke canisters, flash bang grenades, tear gas, pepper balls and rubber bullets. Battered and bruised, Emma escaped the mayhem and made it home crying most of the way.’
‘He wanted to sleep with a woman who was not his wife. After 30 years of marriage, marital sex had become dry and desiccated. Since he had never dated (he married his second cousin which is an improvement on his dad who had married his first cousin), he didn’t know much about the bar scene or socializing in general. So he went online. He created a profile with no picture, but promised to share one with anyone who responded. He was so pleased with his profile, he expected a flood of responses. But when there was not a single response even after a month, he wondered if he should tweak his profile. His profile read:
I am a highly successful programmer who has received great performance reviews year after year. I was one of the coders who made mortgaged-backed securities possible. Creating tranches is a special skill and I am one of the few who could do it! You could say I am primarily responsible for the 2007 financial crisis. LOL!!! But my life is not all coding and financial securities. I have varied interests. I am a hard-core libertarian who has read all of Ayn Rand books. You may find this hard to believe, but I read Friedrich Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom” in one sitting!!!’
‘When Roy first mentioned his bizarre idea of flight, we were sitting on the parapet wall on the roof of the community college building where he worked as a telephone operator (yes, it was back in those days) during the week and as a security guard on weekends. “What the fuck is a parapet wall” he wanted to know when I used the English term for ledge. He said, “you mean the ledge?” We had a minor argument about it and I said “that’s what I was taught to call it.” In typical Roy fashion he settled the argument saying, “You are in fucking America. Speak American!’
‘A month later, I got a call from Wendy saying Roy had jumped off a building and killed himself. But only I knew he didn’t kill himself. It was his first (and last) attempt at flight.’
First Law of Karma (2020)
‘Things were going swimmingly for Christy at work. The company was going gangbusters and there were more positions to fill than people. So Christy, with just high school education, rose from office assistant to analyst to manager to director all within eighteen months. During that time, her salary tripled and she had more money than she ever thought possible. She went from flannel shirt and mommy jeans to Burbery and Valentino. She went and got pedicure, manicure, skin treatment, hair treatment - anything and everything marketed to the niche market made up of women like her.
One day, she went home and watched her bearded, bespectacled husband hunched over the computer and asked herself: “This is the guy I’m married to? Why is he in my life?” That day on, the distance between her and her husband grew and grew. Nothing excited her more than waking up in the morning and going to work where she was interacting with all these twenty something men from all over the world. She had this irresistible urge to bed every young man she met - Romanian, Kenyan, Brazilian, Pakistani. Especially the Pakistani. He was effeminate in a George Clooney kind of way. She found that adorable.
She started to work on him - Hameed he called himself, but she called him Ham-it. She wanted to bring him on to her team. So they met for lunch. Her foot “accidentally” kept touching his and her hand lingered on his every time she said or heard something amusing which was every other minute. Soon she had him reporting to her at work and at the hotel room during “lunch hour”. After one particularly passionate tryst, she went home and told her husband she wanted a divorce. Her husband begged her not to leave him, he couldn’t imagine a life without her, they had been together close to 30 years, whatever the issue, they could work it out. She said, “Look at yourself. Your sweatshirt has food stains all over, your beard is smelly, your pot belly is disgusting. Look at me. Do you really think we belong together? I look twenty years younger than you.”
Six months into their torrid affair, Hameed announced he was going home to see his parents. She joked “don’t come back with a bride.” But he did. She was devastated. They still met at the hotel but less frequently than they did before his marriage. A year later, after a quickie sex, he told her he couldn’t see her anymore. His wife was pregnant. He wanted to be a responsible dad. She tried to threaten him saying she would ruin his career if he broke off the relationship. He laughed at her and said, “There is nothing you can do to me. You know that I make you look good at work. You don’t know the first thing about your job. Without me, you are nothing but an imposter. Besides, HR is not going to look kindly on a boss...” She started bawling before he could finish his sentence. He tried to console her saying, “Christy, you should have seen this coming. There is a twenty-year difference between us.’
‘Sara was a sensation when she was born. “Virgin Sara”, “Immaculate Conception” screamed the tabloid headlines. Her parents were invited to be guests on the morning, afternoon, evening and late-night shows. A church in Texas offered her parents a million dollars for Sara’s divine presence.’
‘It fell to the staid newspapers and scientific journals to explain the first known case of human parthenogenesis. Sara’s DNA was all her mom’s and showed no signs of her dad’s chromosomes or any other male’s for that matter. When the ultrasound could not determine the gender even after 18 weeks, specialists performed extensive tests and made the startling discovery. Despite the doctors’ best efforts to honor the parents’ wishes and keep the discovery under the wraps until after the baby was born, word got out and mass hysteria kicked up. But soon after Sara’s birth, turmoil in the political world pushed her off the headlines and she was able to grow up a normal child.’
‘Over the years, she had become an authority on aging in western societies. So she was surprised to receive from a collaborator in Canada an article on a small community of Zoroastrians in Tajikistan in Central Asia. The article noted that nearly a fourth of the community were elders over the age of 100. Her curiosity aroused, she read all about Zoroastrians - their history, culture, demographics and religion. The section on religion referred to the community’s belief in the virgin birth of Zoroaster - he was conceived when a shaft of light entered his mother, Dughdova. Sara had heard or read about virgin birth in all other cultures, but this one was new to her.
On the flight to Tajikistan, Sara recalled the hoopla surrounding her own birth and, for the first time, was intrigued by it. She met the community of elders and found them quite robust for people in their (claimed) age group. She filed the paperwork with the government to obtain the necessary samples for genetic testing.
Back home, she was getting back into the routine when the lab director called. DNA changes indicated that the men and women in the sample were, in fact, centenarians. There was also something else. The DNA passed down were exclusively along the maternal line.’
‘The milkman tied the cow to the tree outside the gate and squatted down to work the udders. The udders were dry. After several failed priming attempts, he coaxed the calf towards the cow. The moment the calf started suckling, the cow became productive. The milkman forcibly dragged the obstinate calf away from the mother. “Don’t” exclaimed Girija horrified by the cruelty. “How am I supposed to make a living, young lady?” said the milkman and proceeded to squeeze milk into a pail. Girija thought she saw the cow’s eyes well up.
‘As his dad aimed his rifle, Paul muttered under his breath, “Don’t Dad!” Dad missed the heart-lung area and the deer dropped down, jumped back up and tried to run. A second shot dropped him again and the deer didn’t move this time. As Paul approached the deer, the deer’s gaze asked him: “Why? What harm did I ever cause you?”’
The Epic Battle Between Chimera and Narasimha (2021)
‘The two beastly beings fought with everything they had for two nights and a day. Every time, Chimera had the other beast cornered, she/he would fly up in the air and attack Chimera from behind. Chimera’s fire breathing did nothing to faze the enemy who doused the flames with waters from the sky. Finally, Chimera hit upon the tactic that won her the battle. When the enemy landed behind her, instead of whirling around to face her, she duped the enemy into thinking she had been fooled. When the enemy got close enough, she unleashed her tail and stung the enemy several times. The venom instantly killed the other beast. Chimera’s victory roar travelled to the end of the earth.’
Zea Perez was born and raised in the eternal sunshine of the Philippines.
It’s a childhood dream for her to write children’s fiction stories. She also writes fiction and verses for everyone with attempts to spice it up with social issues, the coming-of-age of an individual, and self-inner rumblings with the glorious aim for a better world for humankind on this planet.
At weekends or on special occasions, Zea and her friends, mostly teachers, relish singing in Karaoke. It’s their fetish to sing in perfect notes the songs of Lea Salonga, Regine Velasquez, Sharon Cuneta, Ben and Ben, and Jose Mari Chan.
Zea has a little balcony garden of herbs and veggies which becomes her daily companion, therapist and healer in this challenging pandemic time.
Image provided by Zea Perez
Summer Comes And Still In Pandemic
blue clear skies, bright red sun, blazing roofs and walls
Grab motorbikes running errands and deliveries
Passers by in colorful umbrellas and facemasks
kids none visible on the streets and parks
a city mini bus shuttle for libreng sakay
ambulances keep going and hollering
firetrucks and police cars roaring
a long of waiting list for vaccine
jeepneys running half empty
none essential offices closed
travel tours banned
no work for most
work home for some
online learning if can
The nurse conveys a discharge order from the doctor to Diwa as soon as she sees her. She’s not taken her lunch yet.
‘You can go home anytime, once you pay the hospital bills. We’ll issue a clearance slip,’ the sympathetic nurse reminds Diwa.
When the nurse turns away, Diwa touches her own forehead. She looks up again at the hospital bill: two-hundred thousand pesos! She shakes her head.
Diwa is only twenty-two years of age.
She’d brought the virus to their home. She’d contracted it first. Diwa speculated she’d got it from her daily travels going to her work as a cashier in a food delivery shop. The good thing was, she was asymptomatic. After two weeks of home isolation, her test results turned negative.
But the bad thing was her family members all got the disease - starting with father and then mother, sister and Bunso Ongki. And they were all symptomatic. They suffered from mild to severe symptoms. They had a fever, difficulty with breathing, slight diarrhoea and body malaise. Their eight-year-old Bunso Ongki was under a ventilator in his first week of confinement.
At the start, foreseeing that payment for the hospital stay would be expensive, Diwa went to their village local government to ask for help. She received a verbal promise. They explained the hospitalization aid was already drained. They did not further elaborate to her, as it is undeniable that COVID-19 mostly targeted the poor.
This morning, she tried her luck in the national charity office and assistance. She patiently fell into the long line of people with the same case. After three hours of waiting, they only gave her a priority number. The reason was the same at the local level. At the moment, all government aid is temporarily unavailable.
Her ordeal of asking for help exhausted her. In her college days, they taught her in economic studies that the exorbitant taxes in the country go back to the citizens as social services. But where was it now? Pandemic or no pandemic, citizens keep paying taxes by simply buying essentials like rice, salt, medicine, and services. She recalls she saw protesters observing social distancing, airing their plea to end hunger. She sympathized with them. They’re in the same plight. She feels sheer abandonment. There is no one to turn to this time.
She puts the bill in her bag when the nurse hands it over. Navigating her way back into the familiar smell of disinfectant, she strides towards a recognizable door. For almost a month, this room in the hospital has become their family’s home. She lightly opens it.
Diwa looks up to her father in sadness. Her shoulder dropping.
‘Well, what can we expect? With virus or no virus, this country is struggling. And what can we expect from our relatives? They cannot even buy a kilo of rice for their families. I hope the cinemas will open soon, so work resumes for me. We are all in the same boat,’ her father says. Sullen. Diwa’s father worked as technician in cinemas in a mall.
‘We have no other valued property except for our ancestral home,’ declares her mom.
‘But ‘Nay, ‘Tay, where shall we stay if we sell the house?’ enquires Diwa’s younger sister, Rossan.
‘We shall figure it out once we’re out of here,’ her father sighs. ‘The more we delay our payment, the more the charges will soar. And the lesser chance we can pay.’
‘But where shall we put our things?’ Ongki asks their bunso.
‘We’ll find a place for that. For now, it is best that Ate Diwa shall start processing the papers to the bank, get a loan and guarantee the house. It’s the only option we have,’ her mother says as she looks out the window.
‘But what about our friends? The Mango tree Nanay nurtured. And the Coconuts you planted ‘Tay?’ Everyone glances to Ongki. No single word is spoken.
‘Go now, Diwa.’ her father pats her shoulder. Diwa nods.
She calmly departs the room and gently closes the door. Once she’s out, her tears begin streaming. She’ll miss her friends in the neighborhood. The family will leave behind the fruit trees of Mango, Guyabano, and Coconuts, which gave them a fine harvest each year. They will say a tender farewell to their lovely, wooden-built, ancestral home, in which for long years their family has thrived.
‘Be tough, Diwa!’ She puts on her mask and face shield. She must think about the immediate discharge from the hospital of her family. ‘Think later of the sentimental value of the house and their memories.’ Her fingers open her sling bag and she checks the brown envelope containing the title and certificate of their property.
Her treads are becoming swift but perplexed. Her pace is heading to the bank. But her mind is thinking about the protest to end hunger and misery.
The Kind Moon And The Hardworking Sun
‘Mom, can you stay? When will you be back? Are you not afraid of the virus?’ Kaoi’s train of questions, my six-year-old son, still in his pjamas. He chafes his eyes. Propping his head on the bedroom’s door.
‘You are an early bird,’ I beam. ‘Do not worry. I am protected,’ I point out my PPE wear. ‘I soon shall be back. But for now, I must work. We need to buy milk. I know you will take good care of your little brother.’
Kaoi huffs and reluctantly acquiesces. I usher him to our bamboo settee.
‘Besides, what will happen to the patients I take care of if I would not be there? Maybe they will flounder, swim, or might boat with their tears.” I animatedly exaggerate.
He tries to imagine the scene. We chuckle. On the window, I catch a glimpse of the sunrise inching its way up exhorting a clear blue sky.
‘But I am a kid too, right?’ He settles himself uncomfortably on the bamboo seat.
I open widely the curtains on the windows, the rays of the sun come in bursting onto us. I smile and turn to him on my knees. Holding lightly his shoulders.
‘Yes, you are right. How smart you are to figure that out. I know you need me. And I need you to be safe because I love you,’ I fix some array of his hair around his forehead.
‘But those people in home care center are patients, they are sick and weak.’
Little drops of tears stream down on his tiny face. He embraces me. I gently wrap him with my arms and pats his back soothingly.
‘When I was young like you, I cried every time when my mom and dad went to work. I wanted to be with them wherever they go. I do not want to be left alone. One day my mom brought me along to her work. I was so thrilled. But when I got there, mom had to do many things as well as everyone else. I just stayed in one corner. I got so bored that in no time I wanted to go home and wished I play with my cousins.’
I can feel Kaoi’s arms holding me tightly and his ears touches mine.
‘But now more than anything else, it’s not just about getting bored there at the home center, you might catch the virus, viruses love kids.’
Kaori’s eyes whopping and eventually concurs.
‘Hey remember the story of the sun and the moon? You asked me once, why is the sun not around during night time when everyone needs it the most? Can you still recall the story?’ I enquire.
‘The sun is not there during night time because it has to work on the other side of the planet,’ he responds eagerly.
‘The other side of the planet needs the light of the sun to bring life. There are things and souls there too needing sunlight. The sun is like mom,’ I hold both his hands.
‘Instead, during night time, the kind moon is there to give enough light. The moon is like your granny, your uncles, and aunts; your cousins and your friends.’ My son’s face brightens.
I cradle him up. ‘What a heavy baby you are! Promise me you will stay healthy, okay?’
‘No worries. I am strong. I will eat more vegetables, stay home, and handwash as you taught me. Those sick people need you more now, I guess. I have everyone here to love me and cheer me on. Besides, little brother needs me and he needs to be taught with handwashing,’ Kaoi untangles with me and goes back to the bed light heartedly, with his little brother on the side.
I kiss his forehead. I contemplate what a tough little kid Kaoi will become like his dad. His dad is having a hard time now. He was forced to stay in his ship where he works because of the pandemic lockdown.
I wear my mask and face-shield on. A new journey is ahead of me as a nurse, a front liner. It is a novel challenge for me to take good care of asymptomatic COVID-19 patients in home care centers.
I get on to my feet, looking up and beyond like the hardworking sun.
at six in the evening
I close my laptop
at dawn, two in the morning
I open my laptop
fix tea, coffee
I jog up and down the stairs
tend and water the balcony garden
cook rice, fry eggs, sauté or steam veggies and herbs
clean up, wipe the windows and floors, brush the shower room
revive and bathe, wash clothes, rest, savor a cup of mint or lemongrass tea
keep up with current events, listen to music, connect and chat with loved ones and friends
read and write, draft and share to readers and editors, redraft and re-edit, submit to publishers for acceptance and rejection
at six in the evening: I sleep
at two in the morning: I wake up
in between: I engrave tales of hope, I brave and challenge life
seventeen hours up and active, seven hours of sleep, and so on
A life of a tropical troglodyte
Fine Ladies Bade Goodbye In April
When your last breaths registered on this planet
Roelaiza and Rossan’s fight ensued
I tried to stop them
saving them from further hurting,
scathing and pain
but their inner anger and rage won’t let me
both unrelenting, unyielding
I gave them time and space
waited their energies to wear off
lingered until they were exhausted
in time, they yielded
tears and sobs, shoulders heaving
that was also the moment I knew
both of you had gone
precious souls, esteemed friends
silence and tears for me
I held Roelaiza gently
my heart is bursting with anger and pride
anger for the virus curtailing your lives and dreams
proud that you remain steadfast before your extant breaths
braved yourselves in bearing your lights until its final flashes
embracing death as the grandest acts of all
your souls will always be flaming lights
to us who remained and souls yet to be born
shall cherish everyday your sunny smiles etched unto our hearts
what rousing proud imprints you have bequeathed!
When All Things Around Becomes Grey
‘Hurry, Alay,’ her mother urges her. Alay hugs Kata lovingly.
An immense tremor jolts them. Taal volcano is spewing steam and ashes.
Authorities say they are within the high-risk radius. Experts expect a massive eruption after 47 years of slumber. Taal is the second most active volcano in the country.
They are evacuating now.
Alay adjusts her improvised facemask. A white t-shirt wraps her entire head down to her shoulder. With the opening of the pullover on her face there’s enough of a view for her eyes and ventilation for her nose.
She sees the horizon all in grey. And the ashes make her sneeze from time to time.
They leave Kata the horse alone. All the white hairs of Kata turn to grey. Its eyes are sad. ‘Quit your misery. I soon shall be back,’ Alay assures the horse. But Alay, who has known her since she was eight-year-old, knows it will take long for them to come back.
Alay and her family walk fast. They are heading to the transport area.
A lift is waiting, heading to their evacuation center.
Alay sees the roofed houses holding heavy, dark grey ashes. Some weak ones are collapsing. The once tall Talisay trees, dense and vibrant, are now sad and dying. Trees strive to bear the hefty ashes as much as they can. The mosaic-like deluge of daisies and bougainvillea are now in monochromatic gray. It seems Alay is watching movies of the olden days.
Aling Azel’s sari-sari store is closed. The building is all in dark dust from top to bottom with no sign of life. Aling Azel must have warned and evacuated ahead. Anyhow, Aling Azel and her family have their vehicles.
Gone are the plastic balloon Alay plans to buy today at the Aling Azel’s store. She checks her pocket if her 10-peso coin is still okay. She thinks instead of getting water or juice in cellophane. It is cheaper than in bottles.
Alay walks with her backpack and her also her worn-out rubber school shoes. The road becomes slippery like sticky mud. It is reassuring that she opts to wear her rubber shoes. The slippers cannot go on.
She glances on with her family as they walk fast with no rhythm. They have ashes all over, starting from their heads to toes. She laughs silently. Their faces are funny with ashes all over. They look like clowns.
Her mom is holding her left hand. She hurries her with no words.
Her right hand is full with her little bag. In it are her sketching materials. It is the only thing she can grab. And a few of her belongings like underwear, toothbrush and a few shirts and pants.
There are several tremors as they walk which make Alay dizzy. And the thunder-like roar of Taal spewing its ashes and steam instantly shuts her sense of hearing. She has never been this scared before. Alay squeezes the hand of her mother holding her.
Strangely, Alay cannot see beyond several steps. But she can hear. She hears a crowd of people talking.
Her father cradles her and lifts her to the truck, a lift to the evacuation center. It is a public school, Alay and her family shall stay together with several families. They make do with the tiny space.
Before Alay sleeps, she asks her mom if she can sketch a little. She gets her materials. Alay takes time to paint until she gets drowsy.
When her mother and father look up at her drawing, her mother’s tears fall instantly.
Alay drew intricately the things that the family left behind.
Beautifully painted are their house, the bamboo fence, the young coconut trees at the front yard, the Talisay tree of a neighbor, their backyard with chickens and pigs, their vegetable and flower gardens, and Kata the horse. She drew everything so alive. Yet, all are in monochrome dark gray. Except for the red sun in the east, a living witness of the many catastrophes on this planet for millions of years.
Everything in Alay’s sketch is holding on for the red sun as Taal Volcano continues rumbling and cloaking the horizon with its dark grey spew and ashes.
Oasis In A Bustling City
Herbs and greens in plastic pots
Forest Tea, Peppermint, Purple Spinach, Lemon grass
Red Camote tops, Oregano and Basil
You refresh my spirt. You nourish my being
A splendid fellow in this pandemic times
Ang munting luntiang santwaryo
The balcony garden
E F Hay
'Quantitative Easing' - image provided by E F Hay
E F Hay exists in Britain- yet rather than follow spurious, ceremonial leaders, over the years has intermittently found it therapeutic to write out various thoughts, feelings & ideas as stories, so that these (stemming from a stark authorial perspective, developed within depressing, ugly margins of a lower working-class subsistence) can be examined, considered, & interpreted, by clinical practitioners, who might offer professional psychological assistance. His fictional works have also been published in print & online.
Changes in circumstances (primarily since this Covid-19 pandemic altered EF Hay’s daily employment routine) inspired an uptick in his literary activities, & 2020 saw him start to churn out fictions with an unheralded productivity. Over & above flash fiction, & short-stories, EF Hay has drafted a novella, quickly following on the heels of a novelette, both of which (as with all the profoundly disaffected tales he conjures) reflect the ills he views abroad (but mostly within Blighty’s sceptred shores), spawned from a recklessly negligent human condition.
You can follow E F Hay at Twitter@EvanFindlayHay
Shreib [an extract from the short story 'Schreibtischtäter']
Cyril, took a measured sip of tea, from his personalised mug, & waved a hand to calm Max ‘I don’t suppose it’s much consolation, but many great artists tolerated difficult lives, spent in substandard homes. Marcel Proust grew up in an abandoned housing estate in East Kilbride; apparently, as a young man, he was in & out of prison on multiple domestic abuse charges. Emile Zola thole in a trailer park in Mississippi, with nine unwanted children, & an oil-burning Oxycontin habit; & of course, Beethoven, who a lot of people forget, was an Uzbekistani taxi driver, & divorced more than 33 times, before he broke into music.’
Max was visibly shocked, in contrast to Cyril, who remained chilled to the point of disinterest. ‘You appear to be a painfully slow learner Max, but even you must have noticed shrinkflation; it’s related to an almighty degree of currency debasement. We’re living through the greatest monetary experiment in history. It’s post-capitalism; central banks, acting on behalf of an entrenched plutocracy, are manically buying bonds, stock, anything & everything it takes to keep their party’s Ponzi punch-bowel full until after midnight. Inflation, stagflation, & starvation are associated death throes.’ He expressed no surprise concerning Grateful Endeavours’ vagaries, either as an organisation or Archie specifically- making no effort to communicate clearly with his ‘clients’. ‘Their sort don’t need to Max. They’re a law unto themselves; beyond reproach, & free from obligation.’ Max mumbled vaguely about bosses, to which his coach laughed aloud. ‘GE is a function of the élite Max. They are the bosses! As Norm Franz pointed out erenow (had you been listening), gold is the money of kings, silver the money of gentlemen, barter the money of peasants, debt the money of slaves; & monetised debt is enslaving millions. Think about it. Archie wouldn’t waste a brain cell on morality, or doing the ‘right-thing’ by you, or anyone else. He simply concentrates on taking actions required to maintain his privileged position amongst the upper echelons of Britain’s social hierarchy. If Adolf Hitler flew in today, he’d arrange for a limousine anyway.’
Max, riddled with emotional pain, & light-headedness, following a sharp abscission of hope, had been mugged off, left, right, & centre. A blithe work coach, without pressure, comfortably ensconced at a natty utility desk, in a cosy heated office, with tasty sandwiches squirreled away in a tiffin drawer, tea & coffee freely available, spared no concern for the likes of Max, whom this comb-over coach neither respected, nor attempted to understand (yet biasedly judged Max manifestly dispensable, so as to lazily waste his time). Evanescing, Max, an unremarkable, ragged-trousered loser, departed, to struggle to survive, enivrez-vous per chance: whatevs. Over eight-weeks later a second-class letter arrived, in response from GE...
Max Brodie Sinclair Esq.
4 Always and Forever Road
Walford, London East
4 March 2024
Thank you for your recent submission. This has now been forwarded by the Submissions Committee to the Submissions Sub-committee, & their report will be processed in the usual manner by a Standing Pertinent Appropriations Committee, which, as you should have been made aware (sic), meets every Walpurgisnacht in the German village of Badendorf. We hope to have their comments in the New Year, probably in November, & this will be considered by a working party drawn by lot from the World Wildlife Fund, who have been appointed as Body Responsible by National Heritage who are sub-contracting our working party appointments, in their very own, time hallowed manner. Naturally, we will be unable to give you an official response until the working party has completed their deliberations, & their comments have been assessed by a plenary session of the European Court of Poetic Justice in accordance with Article 132, (ii) of the Treaty of Westphalia, 1648, as established by Wayward Squirrel vs. Mott the Hoople (citations omitted).
Nevertheless, I would like to take this opportunity, to add a personal note to what can often seem, to the jejune young struggler, to be a process governed by anonymous & impersonal institutions. These bodies are, you might well think, not best placed to appreciate the blood, sweat, tears, & other fluids expended by the artist, in pursuit of his or her goal; whether that is the encapsulation of some essential truth above the ambit of our everyday somnambulance, or again, the representation of the vilest, most degraded depths of our unacknowledged desires. If this is, indeed, what you believe, then I’d just like to say: ‘fuck off- nobody asked you to write it, so don’t come it with me, you warty old toad.’
Very best wishes with your future endeavours
pp Archie Bickerstaff
extract from the short story 'Bob's Full House’
We were smoothly ushered into a reception room where Bob appeared unto us. I’d read somewhere, he’d a serious drink problem; half-expecting a slightly raddled appearance, but instead it was like Archangel Gabriel popping down for a quick chat with local rustics. He projected an assured smile, like a Mercedes radiator grille. His tan was as deep as it was even. He wore a crisp white Harvey Nichols’ shirt, blue double-breasted blazer, grey slacks, & an MCC egg-&-bacon tie. He asked us our names, & assayed a few possible gags. United, we chuckled; automatically obedient. He’d a cute habit of tugging at his shirt cuffs between teeing up jokes before delivering their punch lines. He noted that I’d worked as a sylviculturist, & scribbled something on his clipboard. Bob left. Gabriella led us through a bewildering labyrinth of corridors, to another reception room, to seriously talk clothes. We’d been instructed to bring attractive attire, a minimum of nineteen wardrobe ensembles; whilst these were vetted for harmony & photogenicity, I poured myself another stiff Scotch. By the time we’d alighted in make-up to be creamed, powdered, & sprayed, I’d long lost contact with reality. It didn’t strike me as strange when a tactile Welsh dresser forensically checked my nostrils for unsightly nasal hair, before artistically touching up each eyebrow with lukewarm greasepaint.
Next stop was the production studio itself. There Bob’s previous four recorded oblatory rivals, surrendered to the conclusions of their distinctive 30 minutes of fame. Large print, viewer friendly name cards were seamlessly changed. The Bombalini Brothers, doubling-up as warm-up-men-cum-floor-managers, cracked jokes: what did one randy rabbit say to another? This won’t take long, did it? Well-oiled tag team performers, they sustained an irrepressibly fluid atmosphere of continuously induced, suppressed hysteria. No fewer than 50 TV sets beamed down from lighting gantries, between blinding arc lights. To sound out a cacophony of angel trumpets, & devil trombones, digitally taped, family friendly, herd-mentality music started playing; someone touched my arm. ‘You’re on.’
It was an inflection point, like jumping out of an aeroplane; my stomach in free-fall. The next thing I remember, Bob’s shining physiognomy orbited above me. Wholly zoned, he studied a prompt card on the desk in front of me- ‘conkers’, it read- while creating an illusion of easy conversation. To whom was he talking? Me? This entire hand-picked studio audience? Or those millions of random, brain-dead armchair viewers, who didn’t yet exist? All three? None? ‘Evan Hay! Good Evans! You’re a qualified tree surgeon! I recall a sick friend who visited a tree surgeon!’ I stared at those golden cufflinks; diamonds winked back at me. I was hypnotised. ‘He was cured, but when the autumn came, his hair fell out & his conkers dropped off!’ Twin Bombalini’s turned somersaults in the aisles, holding up LAUGH & APPLAUD cards. A mesmerized live audience guffawed inanely; portraying wild happiness on demand, as Bob glibly insulted each contestant in turn. Our uncomfortable red faces stared back down at us from monitors above. Cameras swivelled & zoomed. I craned my neck. I wondered where my supporter had disappeared to. Just the night before, my sister drunkenly pledged to cheer me on- but then again, that had been in a realer world. I braced myself, as indelible blusher inexorably penetrated my psyche, compounding a rouged, bruised, butt naked embarrassment. Predictably, paraphrasing a compères expression, the rest my friend was show-business.
One Enchanted evening in Whites: so, let us start honestly, without indulging in faux ideological one-upmanship, or casually pretending that back-in-the-day I sat in snug splendour upon a warm seat of influence as a committee member in the Comintern; or even gigged as junior editor of Lotta Continua. I did, but that’s a whole new scandal, a cast of thousands etc. Today I remain a gentleman, albeit one of diminished means, with precious few foolish accoutrements to declare bar my congenital masculine geniuses- these lamentably on occasion will entrance me into forgetting that discretion is indeed, more often than not, the better part of valour (as so happened recently).
Do you know those times? We've all likely had them- in your local enjoying a quiet drink most probably after having watched a Chelsea game; quietly & unobtrusively discussing sedulous thoughts with a few select spars, prior to sensing someone parked up at an adjacent table, prattling inanely to silly pals, spouting immature observations based solely on their own two-bob myopic, ignorant, blinkered opinions. As the night passes you’ve maybe had marginally more pints than you’d originally planned or accounted for- slowly yet ever so surely becoming increasingly pissed. Still, you can’t help hearing that obstreperous background persona non grata making reckless-imbecilic comments, repeatedly getting louder, noisier, darker- lazily, carelessly playing to a crass gallery of unkempt dummies. Forebodingly, you gradually become a soupçon over bothered. Yet, convincing yourself that you’re more mature than him, you let it pass: no dramas. Urbane anger management clicks in, but tellingly your mate actually revisits the bar- when you thought he’d disappeared for a well-earned leak- hence, unknown to you, he offers up yet another unexpected pint of Punk IPA (one of over the eight) & indebted, you honourably, albeit reluctantly, accept his generosity (loosely thinking ‘I really must be meandering home to attend to Mother’) whilst also imagining this prophetic pint could figuratively tip one over a rocky precipice. However, those stellar Whites ‘homies’ easily assure & flatter you otherwise, as they always seem to do, so obediently, one stays put- temporally muzzled.
Nevertheless, eating away at your customary happy chemically charged mood swing is a frigging stale banana, sat at an enormous adjoining walnut dining table, that you’re now certain is looking for trouble. So far, you’re a refined, cultured European, a fully-grown renaissance adult- in stark contrast to this giant wank*r & tableau vivant of associated gimps. You like to think that you’re well above gratuitous, childish friction, but no, you just can’t handle it any longer. Full of drunk-wired-bravado, you suddenly turn around snarling, hot sang noble arises, adrenalin pumping- a visceral grievance evident in both expression & body language. Each tense moment seems to flow in slow motion: friends cautionary voices faintly distant- inaudible, as if you’ve cotton wool stuffed into both cauliflower ears. Clenching fists, you alter states, as if some chap’s randomly flicked an emergency switch: you flip! Not only ready, but determined to have a right royal tear up, & your primary target’s that Berkshire sat in the VIP reservation. In milliseconds you abruptly stand, erect, spiritedly up-out from a deep leather Chesterfield, approaching the targeted ugly boor (multiple frit knob-jockeys dotted around him), who senses a legitimate anger, & unadvisedly jerks up in quasi self-defence: ultra-violence erupts, loud voices, screams, tears- but noticeably, no tiaras.
Diamond cut crystal glasses get smashed, antique teak tables knocked over. You deal with it, delivering a proper straightener- a real one-sided row. That annoying unprepared twat’s suddenly on the wrong end of numerous hard knuckled blows; aristocratic blood is spilled, staining your newly tailored clothes, it’s all across his newly decorated boat race too, & his pink, possibly Hollister, or similarly inappropriate branded t-shirt’s now claret-red. His fair-weather entourage, swiftly departed, melting away from one’s testosterone, clearly flustered, now meekly mincing, simultaneously with style, into Boodle’s. He alone remains, cowering upon a rich Axminstered floor- his effete spindly legs instructed by his brain to no longer support him, due to a barrage of vicious heavy punches rained down upon his battered canister. He winces, peeking up submissively to seek mercy. You glare back admiringly, down upon your handiwork, declaring yourself victor, as nothing’s coming back. And then, finally, post-carnage, you make a swift exit. Heading home, strolling down St. James’s, with senses heightened, still shaking slightly with rage cum fear, & feeling as if one’s head needs a fucking enema. Piece by piece, one truly considers what’s just happened, & whom one’s just totally mullered: only the bleeding Duke of Westminster. MOTHER!
extract from the short story 'The Gospel According to Mr. Eric'
Where to apportion blame?
Anchored deep into a storm-tossed Atlantic Ocean, festooned by humungous oceanic garbage gyres, bent, drenched, & twisted under near permanent rain clouds, some of us (that’s we/not them) are now fully marooned; our sole succour lies in sampling whatever poxy sanctuary there remains dotted around these flood sodden isles, in order to catch our breath, & temporarily shelter from a noxious miasma emanating from arseholes all around. Initially a tasteless whisper, oft repeated, broadly recognised, & in the fullness of time vaguely accepted- it drifted, until its realisation, albeit still nebulous, appeared somehow inevitable. Quickly, a confederation of opportunists coalesced to embrace claim & media stewardship over this new false dawn, with its hybrid discontents, drawn from deep multifarious bowels of irritability. Adroitly, manoeuvring across a rudderless, floating, faux democracy, a patchy fear of dishonourable global redundancy was evoked by numerous perfidious sophists; self-pitying bilge aside, a dilution of national identity, & most alarmingly, general fears of losing personal benefit entitlements arose (just so many dependent on this bloated state)– so, soon such querulous voices, rallying behind a renaissance of sovereign power, became deafening (tellingly Blighty’s fabled lost intellect from yesteryear wasn’t recollected as having been of much value, or any great loss– only its muscular exertion of Imperialism). This reactionary notion, now epidemic, congealing ubiquitously, settled & most grossly manifest as an endemic sickness, rooted deepest beneath those heartlands, where flag-waving-buffoons happily-cheer on an undisciplined, over extended military, huge gulfs between indebted, vulnerably weak billions, & the unassailably strong (awarded anointed human forms in monarchies, hereditary, aristocratic oligarchs, home-grown VIPs, & tax avoidance emperors). These insensately patriotic, primarily English areas remain fertile ground for state-surveillance agencies seeking to increase staff membership, via gullible volunteers. Subjects of suspicion, find ourselves awkwardly ensnared, within a shrinking island culture; rampant historical revisionism, & overbearing bad-faith, affecting fellow subjects, into protracted, idiosyncratic bouts of Folie à deux, itself playing havoc with state-orchestrated, gnarled, ancestral, & ever mutating Stockholm syndrome– we ache for respite, from acute strains applied from left (if you think there's nothing scary about tomorrows world, abandon hope now) & right (wallop, that’s for nothing son– now do something). Have we done something wrong?
Psycho [an extract from the short story 'Psychoneuroses']
A bunch of Muppets were staring at him; they might have purchased council houses, but not one had the Aristotle to confront Aleister properly. In panic they pointed a large foam finger accusatively. Poltroon bastards the lot of them, yet consensus was remorseless. Aleister couldn’t get a handle on what was occurring. He was so out of synch with the picture, it just wasn’t funny. Was he the guilty party? Is that why all his spars blanked him? Fagan had seemed contrite, and many others had given him short-shrift. Someone could’ve warned him if he was edging off the rails. Now who would visit him in clink? Young Conservatives? Not a chance. Aleister could no longer handle this level of rejection. At his feet lay CCG, at last bloody well mute, sprawled across the stage in fancy dress, particles of his Woolworth’s porch lantern scattered across the deck.
The resident ship of fools was about to away anchor and mutiny, so he needed to scarper. He swivelled swiftly and nutted some character in the boat then was on his toes outside into Leicester Square. It was full of mad dogs; the acrid stench of filth contorted his expression, stretching muscles in his lower jaw as he roared back at them. He howled ripe obscenities, growling like a giant wolf from some Norse saga, stuck in his head since the infants. His stature increased until all else appeared to shatter in his wake. As he raced through the green hundreds of pigeons took flight in unison, as if they were all tiny rockets, part of a first strike initiative aimed at destroying the planet. The population deserved it, liars & cheats every last jack. Look! There’s the Devil. Where? There. How do you know? Listen well my friend, the light from the bulb up there in the ceiling hit the Devil and bounced off on to my retina; lots of tiny sensory things tingled in my mind. It was they telling my brain cells, no? What! Aren’t you imagining things? You’re Gonzo.
Am I bollox.
Sprinting through Coventry Street and beyond into Haymarket, Aleister realised that resistance was pure futility. Route Master number 15 bore down on him so hard it felt as if a fireball had exploded inside his chest; he could hardly breathe. As he drowned in his own blood, his sight clouded- other senses seemed to operate fully of their own accord. Energy dissipated from his being. Up above he noticed Fagan’s drunken face leering at him.
“Life isn’t fair Aleister, not for you or me leastways. The likes of us see, all around the world, we’re suffered: purely to be exploited. Even my mate the copper was fucked over. They dropped him like a hot potato when they discovered he was bent. Disposable see? They terminated his career- 29 frigging years! His corruptible tendencies had gone undetected during routine security screenings. The truth? Only guttersnipes know that. And you done good son. We can’t let self-proclaimed royalty like Cecil Gruff take liberties. I would have done the same boy; only you beat me to it. Those wankers down the front lapped it up like pussies, thought he was the dog’s bollocks, some kind of fucking deity; whilst the working classes, the English working classes! They fought amongst themselves as usual. Fuck ‘em. Still, you got him OK. Now stay calm mate, I’ve got something tasty for you before you go.”
After wobbling a wee bit Fagan gradually genuflected, holding tightly onto Aleister’s hand. With due care and attention, he produced a small wet pink object from his torn pocket. “Here, I extracted Cecil’s insolent tongue. I would have tampered with his sphincter had I had time, but you know, been there, done that.”
This final act of innocent, if demented compassion, soothed Aleister - as death engulfed him, his last selfless hope, was that his time on Earth had not been spent entirely in vain, and that his crushed, dismembered body, would at least become sustenance to stray dogs, foraging swine, jackals and eagles; utilised by scientists for pathological research, profited from by medicine heads, sold abroad illegally, fed to the birds of the heavens, or perhaps the fish of the deep.
This is wisdom
extract from the Short Story 'Hello Sailor!’
The venue was an architectural gem, & incredibly, hitherto, I concede that I never knew such an arresting edifice existed in Royal Tunbridge Wells. To avoid gross ingratitude, I accepted; hand in hand, passing giant aspidistras, we entered the establishment, unexpectedly oriental in fashion, to witness live acts, which were nothing if not diverse. As well as rhapsodic Bohemian singers, an amusing compère introduced strangely curious comedians, blacked-up minstrels, Rangdo of Arg (a cheeky cockney chappy), reassuring local yokels on hand-held pole stilts, Daphne, the completely convincing mind reading duck, dancing Quakers, pneumatic Daisy Squelch & her big brass six, motley crews of luxuriantly decorated salamanders, siffleurs, dentalists (acrobats hanging by their teeth), water-spouters (from their anuses: LOL) & enthusiastic fartistes, who energetically extinguished Yankee Doodle candles (blowing from skilfully supple darkened derrières), & released subtly cadenced bursts of colonic music. After such ribaldry, universally well received, punters wandered out into an adjacent bar for stiffeners; together they pursued erratic, inconclusive comparative reflections. ‘Show me the incentive, & I’ll show you the conclusion’, Osama quipped teasingly, as tensions mounted amidst the exuberant white working-class crowd of couples– some married, mostly divorced, single, or separated (unions of sexual convenience). Violent femmes, gamine florists, well-to-do match-stick gels, spunking hard-earned profits on denier cri, accompanied by superlatively tattooed, monosyllabic beaus (no littérateur in sight), stereotypical manual labouring types, white van delivery drivers, from god-awful provincial transport yards; all elementary enough coves, uneducated, without prospects, endowed with literally no scope for promotion (presumably dragged, on a daily basis, into a higgledy-piggledy petty politics, extruded from the hopes & fears of proles stuck in a rut, year in, decade out). Still, in the case of those present, perpetual drudgery hadn’t prevented them from glamming up to step out for a jolly. Indubitably, their enduring spirit marked them out as intoxicating, & attractive. However, when mixed together, with alcohol, libido, & a life-times pent up, inarticulate suppression, their passions made for inflammable material. On account of the wide medley of tastes-choices, some preferred one act– others supported its apparent opposite (I found their volcanic dialogue invigorating, bold as it was, filled with lively invective, exempli gratia- ‘you’ve got more mouth, than a cow’s got cunt, you cunt!’). They emotively debated various merits relating to each performance, & yet when no hint of consensus could peacefully be sourced, nor even simulated, the audience en masse, studiously waddled off out onto the cobbles, for a ferocious straightener, where in the mêlée, I lost most of my Hampstead’s (which is ironic, as I'd really big upped those dentalists)!
Alan Berger is a writer-director with a few films on Netflix written and directed from the way past. He only writes now and finds he receives a much better blast. He grew up in New York city and now physically resides in West Hollywood California. As then, and now, he has absolutely no idea where any of his thoughts come from. He just reports the news from brain central. When he visits a museum, hears a song, or sees anybody’s art, he has no inclination whatsoever to know what the creator had for breakfast or why. And most likely, they don't know either. The only rule he has or is interested in is...does it work.
Alan's collection of poems 'You Had Me At Goodbye' is now available:
Her In Case Of Emergency
I’m so mad at you, I could spit, she said. Go right ahead and spit, he said, just don’t spit on me, spit on yourself, why don’t you? That’s it, she said, fuck you. And a fucking top of the morning to you too, he said.
Mary Klass slammed the door as hard as she could, and hoped it would fly off the hinges and hit him the head, then, while he was on the floor, wind up, up his ass, without the benefit of lubrication.
Mary Klass had a temper that made an eight-point earthquake, look like a pussy.
And if the earthquake didn’t like it, it, could go fuck yourself too.
When Mary got back to her apartment building, and after crying in her car, in her underground parking space, she went to the mangers’ office.
I want to change my case of emergency, she said to him. Again? he asked. Yeah, you got a problem with that? she said. No, he said. Who is it going to be his time? he inquired. Don’t get smart with me. I’ll let you know, she said as she stormed out of his office, after of course, slamming the door.
When she got into her apartment, after slamming the door, which her neighbors were always complaining about, and they could go fuck themselves too, she chuckled, as she hit the phone.
She called her golf instructor, her tennis instructor, the lifeguard at the pool where was leaning to swim, her piano instructor, and the managers at all the restaurants she frequented, and told them all the same thing she told her apartment manager.
She thought to herself, with all these managers, and instructors, and such, too bad I can’t instruct,
and manage myself.
Then she fed the cat, and took the dog out for a walk, came back home and took a few pills, and went to bed. Her last thought, before dropping off, was that, what the Hell am I doing? As she drifted off, she thought of a song she sang to herself many a time that she titled, ‘Now I’m Back In His Harms again’. Anyway, she thought, I’ll outlive them all.
But she wouldn’t.
That was all she sang.
I wonder what steps she took today
Was I in her thoughts
Was I in her way
I wonder who she spoke to today
Did she speak of me
If I had to wager
I would say nay
I wonder why I wonder
The one that away
Never left my brain pan
Get what you can
I wonder who she is with nowadays
From a distance
I don’t have to wonder
Who she isn’t
I just hope they see her for who she is
Just like I didn’t
I want her to be happy
But let’s not go overboard
Nor do I want to
Slash at the past
With my rusty sword
She most likely would pass me by
If she saw me in a treetop stuck
But I would certainly wave
To wish her good luck
I shall always think of her
Even while getting struck
By a truck
She grew up aware of the process of slaughter.
She heard it, she saw saw it, she smelled it, she ate it.
That is how it turns up down on the farm.
This little big 10-year-old girl had a name for everything and everyone.
Dad was “The Executioner”. Mom was “The kitchen helper’. The animals and birds that flew over and visited the farm were called ‘Tribes People”.
She was an only child surrounded by many temporary pets and imaginary pals.
She began to hear voices at 8 and they were nice and friendly.
She was afraid to tell the folks for fear they would go away.
Besides, they told her not to tell anyone and she was a good secret keeper.
A calf was born one day that the voices said would be different.
And he was.
He was black and white with a pink nose.
She called him ‘Rainbow’
The calf and the girl became super-fast friends, and before Rainbow was even born, she was told that she would not eat him, nor would anyone eat or wear him.
When Rainbow was big enough the little girl made a saddle for him out of old pyjamas that were now too small for her still small body.
All she had to do was say left, right, back, ahead, and Rainbow listened and gladly followed those directions.
Rainbow grew too fast and the little girl knew soon judgment day would be coming and the verdict was not good.
She saw a movie once, with the folks, about a deformed man who took a girl away from an angry bunch of people and brought her to a church where no one would be allowed to get at her.
For such an ugly guy he sure came out beautiful by the end of the story.
Father Dan at the local church that morning was finishing up a chat he had with one of the priests.
Father Dan told the priest he didn’t like the way the priest played and looked at the kids and sent him packing without a letter of reference.
Far from it.
Father Dan put the God Damn word out as he phased it to the soon to be ex-priest.
And that was that.
One fine morning the voices told the little girl that this was the day Rainbow would meet his maker and she better saddle up and head down the road.
The voices suggested she wear a tee shirt that said, “Sanctuary”, like in that movie see saw, on it as well as a sign around the neck of Rainbow.
After she got close to town the voices would tell her what to do next.
As our girl and The Rainbow were getting close to town mom got a call informing her that her daughter was riding a cow down along the highway heading North and was asked if she knew about that.
Mom hung up without answering or telling pa.
On the outskirts of the town, the voices told the cowgirl to head over to the church and like that movie she saw the other day tell Father Dan she wished to sanctuary up like that guy did with the girl.
She got to the church and did just that.
Father Dan, recognizing the movie she was referring to minus the voices told her she was brave and that he would take care of it.
When mom hit town, she was told about the girl on the cow over by the church with the signs on the both of them.
Father Dan said his hands were tied because she had asked for sanctuary and he gave it to her.
He also bought the cow with his own money and not the churches and mom promised in front of Father Dan, and the little girl, and Rainbow, that Rainbow belonged to heaven now and will die of old age instead of becoming a porterhouse.
Mom drove home slowly with Rainbow and her daughter slowly trailing behind.
And that was that.
Not Facing The Music
I certainly can’t blame you
For throwing me out of our band
Let us face the music
Had an addiction as big as the land
Remember when they built that tour bus
Just for our dreams and the four of us
I could always sit way in the back you know
And cheer the band on
While I think of all the life and money
I put in my arm
I only meant to me and me alone harm
Again, can’t blame you
For hitting the alarm
It’s been too little food
And too much crying
I have not felt special
For a long lonely time
But how many can say and do what we did?
Until things got icy
And I slid
The women and men that admired us
They were all so pretty, accessible and agreeable
They just could not compete
With my sweet skipping needle
Even A King
Even a King
That is going to break
Has not a clue of his impending fate
Any promise I hurl at you
Soon in time
Will turn on me like a screw
When the rain comes in
To shower my regret
I direct it to my dark place
So I don’t get wet
One last chance
Became one too many
It all adds up
With the good, bad, and blurry
I would rather be a year too early
Than a second too late
Nothing comes to those who wait
So I force myself
Thru is and that
And at the end of it all
It is only me and my cat
We dig it like that
Tap into the pain
Like a spike in a maple trees vain
Tap into the laughter
In the middle of your current disaster
Tip toe thru the two lips
Of the garden that you master
Strike a chord
On your hot rods’ running board
Find a place to cry
As victory looks you in the eye
Take a look beyond
The ice on your pond
Take a breath and see
You’ll never solve the mystery
Drop a dime
On father time
Spend a quarter swimming underwater
Stand on a mountain till
You see who is above you still
Walk the plank
After you break the bank
Hold on tight
Until it’s all out of sight
Comb the lands
Without getting blood on your hands
Try not to judge
Go ahead and budge
Hold on to your beliefs
Don’t get stuck on a reef
Run in the rain
Disregard the weather vane
If you can to all that
I tip me hat
Ugly And Vain
As a matter of pride and principles
I never attended day or night schools
I am as dumb as they come
I have none
My roof flew away
Over my dome
But I don’t want pity
To me, I’m too pretty
Standing in the rain
A fucking shower of pain
My genes are to blame
I am ugly and vain
Maybe I could have been a male model
Except the agents didn’t see it that way
In my eyes I am beautiful
I just play it a different way
Now if truth be told
Inside I break
Like a week old roll
On the outside when all else crumbles
I still never fold
Standing in the rain
With a tin cup
I can see my reflection
And things are looking up
Only I see that plain
It’s all the same
Being ugly and vain
They say looks are deceiving
Mine are easy to figure out
People think I’m ugly
I don’t know who they are talking about
In the rain
In a bucket of flames
But my thing that is my main
Is I am ugly and vain
If I had a car, but I don’t
I would be living in it
It would have a few mirrors
For my reflections to float
But I live
Here, there, and nowhere
Have I the right to complain?
Being so ugly and vain
And you look at me
And wink or blink
Does not matter to me
What you think
I am real and what is left is fake
For I am a dishonest mistake
Lorette C. Luzajic
Lorette C. Luzajic is a visual artist and writer from Toronto, Canada. She uses collage, poetry, and flash fiction to process the barrage of imagery and information around her and contemplate it in a way that means bearing witness. Poetry and literature are major themes that surface in subtle or overt ways in her artwork, and art history is usually the starting point for her stories and prose poems.
Lorette's new book is 'Pretty Time Machine' [Mixed Up Media Books, 2020]
Honky Tonk Women
Yes, you were telling me, of course I do, of course I miss my mother. There were those bygone patios of Rochester when you smoked cigars and shared tumblers of whisky. Your hair and hearts were big and bursting, and the country ballads you swayed to on your last foothold was velvet. You used to blaze through Avon catalogues, and jewelry counters at the CNE, sorting our caches of glitter and glow with glee and abandon. Well, there were those moments where your tears soaked right through her red satin blouse: Mother would hold you, and wave down a server for more sherry. Once, you confess, you threw up in the joint parking lot between a few rigs, and Mother pulled a perfumed tissue from her pocketbook, wiped your face clean as if you were a toddler with spaghetti on your cheeks. Pull it together, kiddo, she said, patting the seat beside her in the van, taking the wheel, opening another bottle with her free hand.
(from my book, Pretty Time Machine, Mixed Up Media Books, 2020)
Everyone has small secrets, you said once when you wanted to back away from prying. I almost told you everything right then. You had a hand full of Twizzlers, ever since you quit smoking, and I watched you methodically chew one branch after another. We were dappled in sunlight, lolling gently along in a small boat. The scenery was idyllic. I didn’t apologize for a delicious cigar, made a ceremony of tapping the ash onto the lights on the water. I wished that you would draw me, paint me, outline my contours in charcoal. I wanted that fleeting sense of permanence, imagined the strokes and gestures of your pencil and your brush. But you wouldn’t do it. Said it would make you feel too naked. Well, there were times I almost asked you what was behind those closed doors. But I felt compelled to allow you the dignity of a mystery. When everyone else was desperately hawking their secrets to anyone online who would gasp, you were cool and contained, held the weight of whatever it was with a kind of integrity I’d never possessed myself. I somehow wanted to honour that. So I held my curiosity the way you held your secrets. And if I imagined them unravelling in the lone dark when I wasn’t with you, I never told you anything about it until now.
Mr. Jones is sick of solanine: by now, craggy spurs and creaky knuckles from the dark bursting eyes of his spuds are weary nuisances. Still he pares on, with Saint at his side. The room’s musk of dog and potatoes is a hallmark after all these years. Sometimes they’ll both be rattled from reverie by the racket of teacups when the train rumbles past behind them. Mr. Jones might put his knife aside, summon Saint to the backyard for a sniff and a woof among earthworms and the falling night. He might light a pipe for a few swift puffs, stub out the nest of tobacco with the tip of his finger when he turns in. The whistle way off sounds like a song he used to know.
You asked about Marie and I didn’t know what to tell you. I’d last seen her wedged atop my bookshelves, her sly smile up there blank and all knowing, and it hadn’t dawned on me until that moment that I hadn’t seen her for some time. Marie, the long-necked Madonna of disco. I would have guessed her sultry vintage stare was painted on just as Abba hit their stride, but she was as aloof and flawless as Nefertiti, another incarnation. Nah, you said when you gifted her to me- she’s a real redhead, like me. I had to agree and ended up spray painting her russet when she got dusty. I heaped her in swathes of little disco balls that bloomed pink and baby blue when the last light fell through the blinds. Her neck grew as long as our friendship. Once you strapped Marie to the front of your boyfriend’s Bronco, and she rode unblinking through Wyoming and Michigan to land back home. When you left again you placed her at the topmost shelf in my library and she’d never gone anywhere since. How long had it been since Marie’s discreet disappearance and now? I had no idea where she’d gone or who had taken her. Sometimes it’s like that, a small mystery, like how the day I met you, you were long and thin and orange like the cat I loved who had fallen fatally from the balcony that very morning. I named you after him, a moniker you wore from then on forward. We never agreed on anything but “Suzanne” by Leonard Cohen, thrift store oddities, and New Orleans. It didn’t matter, nothing did, in that kind of friendship, easy as Sunday morning.
after Andres Roca Rey
The matador is a fey little slip of a thing. His smallness is not disguised by the dazzling pale green spacesuit made of light. I’m about to the take the bull by the horns, declare that he needs mothering, but none of the ten thousand ears in the rings would hear me. Kleenex are waving like proverbial ballad lighters in stadiums back home, chins thrust back, braying for blood. My date nudges me, tells me the boy is currently famous for being the worst bullfighter in the world. Just nineteen and already been gored, more times than they can count. I thought I’d read that meeting your maker in a losing match was a badge of honour for a torero, the only way to die. That those never wounded have nothing to show in a game where scars are the currency of manhood. Matteo muffles a guffaw, cups his hand to my cheek with uncharacteristic softness. Yes, hermosa, he says, that is true, but first you have to fell a few bulls.
The Peanut Butter Yarmulke
My Dad admitted it, readily, cheerfully. That he’d been praying for me, that the Lord would send a nice Jewish boy. Couldn’t you have been more specific? I bawled at him, and at God, holding you up in the door-well by the scruff. You calmly removed your glasses and polished them while I ranted and raved, then reached for mine and went at them with your hankie. Dad was getting more gray by the day. He was almost translucent. But he loved for us to crank up the bed and fluff his pillows so he could join, asked for a plastic tumbler full of ice and a few fingers of white wine if it was after five. He had a birdfeeder set up right outside, told us if the window wasn’t there, he would shoot the grackles and the squirrels that took everything from the hummingbirds he was luring. The dreaded grackle was staring in at us just then, all tut-tut bravado and beady insolence. Dad was patting the sheet beside him for us to join him on the bed, reached for his wine and for his Bible. You turned on your phone to record his faltering recitation, and I would thank you for that later when he was gone. But right then I was too busy pressing Reese’s peanut butter cup wrappers to your shiny pate. Look, Dad, it’s his yarmulke! I pointed, and we all laughed. I was thinking about licking the sugar from your skull and I know you felt my pulse quicken. I marvelled how your teeth arched white right back into the gum, where mine were grimy yellow hollows from too many years of cigarettes. Dad never laid in on me about settling down, discreetly held his regrets and hopes for me close to his skin and never imposed them. I was just happy he could see me carrying on and laughing with you. I took that, even if I don’t know if we were forever, or what that even meant. Never held anything this long without breaking it.
after Ruby Wallick
“I will say that in 26 years of law enforcement it’s the worst thing I have ever seen.”
- Police Sgt. Aaron Pomeroy
Nine decades under her belt, but there was still room to spare. Ruby was spry, sharp, and sure of three more years. Even with porcelain bones, light as air. She’d seen it all before, but not this. Who could guess their last supper would be tonight, with Ruby the main course? Her daughter dropped by to drop off fresh rhubarb and some green beans, hoped her mother had the back burner simmering with bacon and spuds. How a crumble of biscuit sopped on steaming top would melt her troubles away. You were never too old to need your Mama, were you? she thought as she climbed the old steps. The cities were in flames around her, and the deadly virus of 2020 was felling her neighbours like branches snapping away. She heard the sounds of struggle, a low and guttural rumble, as if a wild animal had gotten inside. Her call was answered with a strange silence. There was a scuttling noise on the floorboards above. She picked up pace, came face to face with a nightmare: a vampire straddled over Ruby, tearing handfuls of meat from her carcass with both hands. His mouth was stuffed full of fat. He licked his chops, crooked a greased finger her way. Ruby was long gone, emptied into dark pools seeping through the floorboards, eyes fixed on the ceiling. Her slippers were obscenely asunder, red and fuzzy and floating in blood. The sirens were already singing on the outskirts, circling the unrest, scooping up the casualties and injuries. She must have called someone, because they came closer. It took four cops to pry Ruby’s grandson from her corpse and a taser for him to release her entrails from his teeth. How do you bury a nonagenarian who has been eaten alive? How do you tell the others that the wolf in the attic was your own?
Karen and Karen
We were cut from the same cord, a few years apart. Sisters unknown. Rose up in the same wheat fields, same Manitoba snowstorms, and we didn’t have a clue. My sister, named the same name. At sixty, helping a dying great aunt look for her daughter, I found the secret that would soon have been buried with our mother. The sister I’d grieved as stillborn all my life. A girl out there. Our mother stayed married to my father for 70 years. It was a rare commitment, a long road of till death do us part, and there was a fork in the road: a mistake and a miracle. Karen. From another father. Karen is half me. She does not come into view for many more years. I have found out the secret, but have not found her. She is real but not real. When I don’t hear back, after that first surge of hope, I forget I have put my bottle out to sea. But today, an email. Inside of it, my beating heart. A woman who is also named Karen. We will meet, clandestine like furtive lovers, in hopes of not breaking anything. We will both have lives behind us and sturdy shoes beneath us. We might be sewn together, we might return to life apart, we do not yet know how it is, or how it will go. We only know, we are Karen, two sides of the same coin. Is there something in me that knew I’d been severed from myself, something in her that said so? I do not know. I do not know whether I will click with her or she will click with me. It doesn’t matter. Too much time has turned to dust already. There is only blood and rust, there is only the sun setting over the prairies, shorn of brambles and brick by the pioneer women in wagons who came before us.