Orienteering—Kris Hiles

The voice I miss the most belongs to my grandfather,
and the last time I heard it he was dead. I was abandoned
in the wilderness of the station wagon – atlas under the seat,
Dad drove, Mom snacked – as we headed north after the funeral,
and the lights reflecting from the windows lit the ground
like and angel descending. I remember,
on his deathbed he said heaven is somewhere to the north. Maybe
he meant he’d rather be ice fishing in Canada, but we were at a rest stop
when he suddenly spoke, glow, in a fog halo around an interstate light,
“They never listened to me, won’t listen to you, when you’re alone
just hear yourself and you’ll be a god. No one commands a god,
little girl. You’ll find paradise. Just keep going.” Then he looked at me,
disappeared into the thunderclouds. For the rest of the day
the windshield wipers couldn’t keep up with the rain.

Kris Hiles is an autistic queer poet living in a blue house with her plants and vinyl records. She likes snow, the smell of archives, and vintage computers. In her free time, she edits GLITCHWORDS, an online micropoetry zine. You can find her on Twitter at @KrisHiles.

photo by Dimitar Belchev (via unsplash)

Three Poems—Alena Sullivan

Ars Magicae

Witchcraft found me in the womb
where it forced open my mouth
and made me sing my name                   to my mother in her dreams.
I woke to the world with the moon in my mouth,
mystic words like raw and ragged pearls
                                                                        clacking against my teeth.

It struck me as lightning in hot Southern storms,
spells soaking my skin with the rain:
             this is how you weave the future;
             this is how you cast the bones;
             this is how you find secrets in the hearts of men.

It spun itself inside me, spiderweb
silk and strings of starstuff and
                                                          so many secrets,
magic itself a nebula below my ribs,
echoing chorus of worlds long dead or still someday yet to be.

I wore it like a coat:
             frayed witch’s wool and pockets full
                           of hexes,
                                         heartbreak,
                                                        healing charms.
It kept me warm as I wound my way down
             into the squirming gut of the world,
                                         deep and dank and smelling of ash,
                                                                                                  of ozone.

On autumn nights when the moon went dark
I walked wet woodland paths in bare feet,
lungs drowning oxygen and making midnight music of its bloated corpse,
             crackling, crooning songs
             only crows and cats could understand.

Here, now,
it streaks my hands like blood,
                                                                        dry and flaking
as I turn the cards for little girls
who cannot yet see the storm clouds rolling in,
             the multitudinous eyes that open and             blink
from their own shadows.

Now the stars inside me are beginning to show through,
skin worn thin with near a century of spells,
but I will not be afraid—

when skin has gone and my work is done,
I will strike like lightning,
will spin in darkest space,
will whisper from the rolling silver stones of rain:
             This is how you read the leaves;
             This is how you cast the spell;
             This is how you learn the secrets in your shadow.

Love Song of the Swamp Witch Scorned

These thoughts of you have turned to sores:
                                             suppurating,
                                             oozing swamp-smells,
                                             summoning flies that flutter in my gut.
I have found roadkill more lovable than you,
              eaten exoskeletal insects with more spine—
and yet, wax paper wings buzz below my ribs
                                                       at every glance toward your memory.


Tell me, is life really better as a birch tree?
Would life in my arms have been so bad?
It is immaterial now:
                                             you have no mouth to lie to me,
                                             no eyes to lose myself in;
                                             your fingers touch nothing but sky.
I am left to this ugly witchwork:
                                             to peel off your skin in strips
                                             and douse it in light from the moon,
                                             gibbous and gibbering as she makes her way
                                                              towards fullness and madness alike.
It dries white and curling in on itself,
trying to deny me its secrets
                                                         as you did.

One kiss of the buzzard-bone knife
                                                         to the throat of a red-eyed rabbit—
one gnarled fingertip slipped between flaps of flesh gaping—
                                                         all the ink I need.
Letter by letter, line by line,
                                                         I bleed the story into your skin.
It is a love story,
a sputtering song sunk deep—
                                             proof that I was here,
                                                            proof you held me dearer
                                                            than you allowed in light of day.

When it is done,
                                                         when it is written,
I wrap you in ribbons of your own skin,
let your secrets curl around your bones—
brittle now, but thick with words:
                             words you whispered after midnight
                             into amber glasses of ambiguity,
                             words denied when dawn snuck in.


I suture my spellwork surgery with vermillion and white,
silk thread binding
                             truth,
                             bark,
                             rabbit’s blood.
The moon,
                             hanging fat and dripping pearls down your arms,
                             silvering the midges and swamp flies,
                             pooling at my feet like blood.
A kiss,
                             first and after, to seal the spell:
                             every passing eye will read your naked secrets
                             and no sober dawn
                                                          will be able to bleach them away.

Shade of the Moonkeeper

I’m having too many thoughts in these last months and I—
I can’t sleep. 
I can’t sleep, there are ghosts in my room 
and one of them’s you and she’s holding the moon 
like it’s fragile glass, like it’s old, old paper, 
and she’s speaking in a language she’d chide me to remember and 
I don’t know the words but the tune is familiar—
she’s saying that she’s gone home. 
 
Gone home to the summer fields found down the winding middle way, 
dancing like a raindrop to the sea. 
She shines 
silver from the inside and she’s drinking faerie wine like it’s water—
like it’s water—
and she still smells like amber, but now elderflowers, too, 
and she moves like she’s dancing and sets aside the moon 
on a bookshelf in the corner of the room—
the little bookshelf 
in the corner 
of the room. 
 
And she holds out her dancer’s hand and she says, 
“Hey there, my girl,” and the world 
shrinks down, folds close like moths’ wings 
and old dreams 
and other silky midnight things, 
and for a second, for a moment, no time has gone, 
we’ve just kept living on, 
she never slid out of her body on that dawn and  
away, 
away.  
 
I take up the moon because I know that it’s not fragile; 
it’s too busy beating hard between my lungs, 
too busy giving life inside my breast,  
putting light into my bones so I don’t rest—
I know it’s strong, strong as steel, 
strong as dark, primordial clay—
so I take up the moon and I 
take up her hand and I 
breathe as she fades and I stay, 
and I stay.

Alena Indigo Anne Sullivan was born to witches and raised in a neopagan community in the North Georgia mountains. She spent her formative years being homeschooled by her mother and traveling the world with her father’s Celtic band, Emerald Rose. She holds a degree in Anthropology and an MFA from the Stonecoast MFA Program for Creative Writing with a dual concentration in Poetry and Pop Fiction. Alena is a fiction writer, poet, and visual artist who focuses on identity within narrative and the repeated cultural patterns formed by storytelling. Alena’s short fiction and poetry have appeared in Strange Horizons, Rich Horton’s Years Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, Goblin Fruit, Star*Line, Luna Station Quarterly, and elsewhere. Alena also runs Sealskin Studios on Etsy, where she offers custom embroidered spells, pagan prayer images, sigilwork, and various other magical objects as she creates them. You can find links to her work on her website at alenasullivan.com, shop her magical artwork at etsy.com/shop/SealskinStudios, or reach her on Twitter @tea4tuesdays.

photo by Dollar Gill (via unsplash)

Stitches—Samuel Best

It has been one week since the surgery and my stomach still feels taught and tender; the skin around my abdomen yellowed with bruising, a meaty red line bisecting me where my appendix used to be. If I look closely I can make out the white threads of stitching keeping my insides inside. If I think about it enough I can feel that there is something different beyond the scar now.

It had started as a stomach ache. Maybe I had eaten some bad food, I had thought, and I passed it off as the noodles I had eaten the day before. But later that night there was a shift. The squirming pain moved down and round, and I lay in my bed sweating and shaking and Googling symptoms. I went to hospital and they waved me through like they were expecting me. It happens all the time, I was told. I was lucky I came in when I did. Some people were past saving by the time they thought to seek help. In the olden days that stomach ache was a death sentence.

They processed me smoothly and before I knew it I had a drip in my arm and a little cup of pills to stop me feeling the burning inside my body. I feel like I’m digesting myself, I told the nurse. He told me he’d actually had a patient like that once. Her stomach eating itself. Her cheeks sunken with irony. Her skeleton starting to shine through her skin. They talked me though the operation and asked me to sign a form I was too blurry to read properly. Then they wheeled me in and I stared at the ceiling tiles as the world around me whirled into nothingness.

When I woke up I felt like I had been in a car accident. My whole body ached through the painkillers. The doctor came to the foot of my bed and told me that the operation was a success, that he’d never seen an appendix so inflamed, that I should thank my stars I came in when I did. He made a joke about something medical I didn’t quite get and left. I was sent home the next morning.

Since then I’ve started each morning the same way. I unfold myself from my bed like a paper crane, hoping the delicate wound won’t split me in half as I rise, and go through to the bathroom. The light above the mirror shows everything as it is and I turn back and forth, watching my skin try to knit itself back together. Some days the redness seems to blaze with anger, some days the surrounding skin seems like it’s made of wax or clay. Then I shower with a plastic bag taped to my stomach and dress in loose-fitting clothes for another day of pills and box-set TV shows.

They’d given me a few leaflets to take home with me but there’s one in particular I keep coming back to. It talks a lot about post-op care but there’s one little paragraph which keeps catching my eye. It talks about how many people feel a strange sensation inside their bodies after surgery. A numbness, some people reported, or a swelling sensation. Some people felt as if their innards had been entirely rearranged; their hearts beating too far to the right, their lungs inflating too close to their pelvis. I always think about this when I stand in front of the mirror.

There are some mornings where I think I can still feel my appendix, even though I had never felt it before when it was actually in there. There are mornings where I feel a bubbling, squirming sensation; as if an eel were wriggling its way through my body. There are mornings where I swear I can feel the rubber touch of the doctor’s fingers inside my abdomen. There is a number to call on the leaflet but I have never bothered with it yet. Most time I just remind myself that it is a common side-effect of surgery, that lots of people feel this way, and then I go back to the couch to take my next antibiotic.

This morning is no different. The thoughts come to me like usual. The certainty that there is something different at my core. Something moved or moving. Something still shifting inside me. I tell myself it’s nothing. It’s nothing. I look at my scar and the puckering of stitches they said would slowly dissolve as I heal. I look at the ripple of bruising around it. I imagine how much force, how much trauma, my body endured while I was unconscious. I think about how some memories are memories, living inside your head, while some are injuries, scarred into your flesh. And then I see it.

The skin above my scar paling slightly, like I’m rolling it through my fingers, squeezing out the blood. It’s a small area, no bigger than my hand, perhaps. I fix my eyes on it as my mouth turns clammy and tart. Slowly, I push my fingers into the pale area. It feels swollen and puffy and cold. I press my skin harder and the paleness gives way to pinkness again, and the swelling goes down. Except it doesn’t disappear. It moves. Underneath my scar now, by my hip, my skin grows swollen and pallid. A visible lump pushes out like a hernia.

My mind whirrs with thoughts. I remember reading about a patient who sued the hospital after a surgeon stitched her up leaving a glove inside her. Another who’d been found with a surgical tool left behind. I taste vomit and sweat pools on my skin. I press and press and each time the lump moves. It pushes at the scar next and I nearly faint as the raw skin stretches and seeps. There is a moment where I think I can see something behind the stitching, where the skin has split open again. Something pale and pulsing; something coiled and raw.

But when I push my fingers down I can’t see it anymore and the swelling moves to a different part of my skin again. I remind myself that thoughts like this are a common side-effect after surgery, that lots of people think that they see or feel strange things like this. I tell myself that all of this will heal in time. I turn the shower on and tape the water-proof bag around my abdomen, the surging mass in my stomach disappearing under glossy black plastic. The hot water stings my skin and I wash carefully while my hospital leaflet lies by the sink. It curls and coils in the condensation as I tell myself again that all of this will heal in time.

Samuel Best‘s short fiction has been published in magazines in Britain, North America, and Scandinavia. His début novel ‘Shop Front’ has been described as ‘A howl and a sigh from Generation Austerity’ and he founded the literary magazines Octavius and Aloe. You can find him on social media @storiesbysamuel.   

photo by Günter / moritz320 (via pixabay)

Hellabora, Patron Saint of Dark Blooms—Jenny Wong

…black star, baccara, raven girl…

Sometimes, she’ll toss a little kindness
to the blackberries
whose white flowers
gave birth
to small fruits,
burnished bunches
glossy with shadow and sweetness.

But her first loves are the petals
who remember sombre beginnings
underground
before the crack and crumble of sky
revealed their centres
were the color of candle flame,
dark velvet unfurling
away from burning light.

Jenny Wong is a writer, traveler, and occasional business analyst.  She resides in the foothills of Alberta, Canada and tweets @jenwithwords.  Lately, her writings have been more about indoor things, but she still dreams about wandering the streets of Lisbon, Singapore hawker centres, and Parisian cemeteries.  Publications include From the Depths, Luna Station Quarterly, and perhappened mag.

photo by Annie Spratt (via unsplash)

A Bit of a Meltdown—Karen Steiger

I casually disemboweled myself the other day
in front of a crowd of people.
They gaped at me as my intestines spilled out
onto the dirty, gravelly pavement,
but no one did anything about it.
In the moment, it felt really good,
like something I had been waiting to do for a long time.
And these people deserved to see my evisceration,
the long red and pink ribbons of my entrails
like an overly stretched out Slinky.
Afterwards, I felt quite embarrassed.
It’s not really normal behavior.
Messy. Hard to put everything back
where it had been before.
People are going to talk about it,
ask me if I’m okay.
Do I look like I’m okay?
This is my colon, right here in my hands.
Do I need to apologize for being unprofessional?
You’re not supposed to try to stuff everything back in.
Instead, wrap the organs in a sterile gauze
and calmly walk yourself to the hospital.

Karen Steiger is a poet, fiction writer, and breast cancer survivor living in Schaumburg, Illinois, with her beloved husband, Matt, and two retired racing greyhounds, Giza and Horus. She is the founder of her poetry blog, The Midlife Crisis Poet (www.themidlifecrisispoet.com), and her work has been published in The Wells Street JournalArsenikaBlack Bough PoetryAng(st), Twist in Time, PerhappenedKaleidotropeMineral Lit MagRejection Letters, and others. You can find her on Twitter at @maisedawg.

photo by Timon Studler (via unsplash)

Full Moon Rise—Caroline Butterwick

You found me here, lying on the lawn, my bare feet pressed into the grass, my knees arched to the night sky.  

“I can’t sleep,” I said. 

“Neither can I,” you said. 

Though we’d only ever spoken to each other a few fragmented times, I clasped your thin wrist and dragged you to join me, to lie beside me, our nightdresses stroking our thighs.  

“I’m sorry,” I said, realising what I’d just done.  

You smiled, stayed. 

The next day I glanced at you when we passed in the corridor. Your milky skin, I decided, was gaunt and grey now I saw it in the sunlight. 

I lie sleeplessly delirious under each full moon, the bed always too lumpy, the pillows turned thin, the sheets suddenly and irreversibly too wrinkled around my feet. You must do, too.  

When another full moon waxed in, I took myself and my restless energy back into the midnight garden. Soon you drifted down the stone steps and over the grass. And again the next month, and the next. We are witches, living for the lunar cycle.  

“Will he find out?” you whispered as you lay beside me on your belly, your right leg tucked over mine. You smelt of sweet musty roses. 

“No. He’s a heavy sleeper.” 

Tonight, he’d been snorting in his sleep while I lay dwindling on the cusp of dreams, unable to shake the muggy room, hot with the stewed smell of me and him, each breath humid as it passed through my mouth. Out here, blanketed by buzzing night air, I lie in the dark and wonder how long I should stay here, waiting to have calmed and cooled enough to return to that room. 

Fingers brush against my leg, and now you lay down beside me, your breath cool on my neck. Curled into each other’s bodies, we drift in and out of tranquil sleep. I wake every so often to feel you still there, your arms wrapped around my chest, then sleep again.  

A cold wind snaps at me. I blink my eyes open. The black sky has melted to early dawn indigo, the quiet now abraded by birdsong. You must feel the change too, for you bury your face into my underarm and huddle closer, nuzzling.  

“We should go inside,” you say. “The others will be getting up soon.” 

In the hallway, the early sun tints your eyes bright pearls. You drag your fingers through my hair and gently untangle it, pulling out a wilted leaf.  

“Again tonight? Maybe, this time, my room?” you whisper. 

I try to find the best words to tell you how it’s a silly thing that takes hold of me only once a month – a lunar madness, lust – and it’s not otherwise grounded in this world.  

As the words begin to form on my tongue, I realise. The sky was dark all last night. There was no full moon. Maybe heavy clouds obscured it, but that’s not true. 

“Your room.” 

Caroline Butterwick is a writer based in Staffordshire. Her writing has appeared in a number of publications, including the Guardian and Mslexia. Her website is carolinebutterwick.com and she’s on Twitter @CButterwick.

photo by Ganapathy Kumar (via unsplash)

Somnolentia—Louise Mather

she waited for the snow to harbour
bewitched by somnolentia

she ripped ivy with her thumbs
unleashed apple bark

plummeting in ringlets
flecks of lace

she bit the tallow
down to the roots

spat thread and trussed molasses
burnt to the other side

of the candle
larvae

buried long ago
were they humming

molecules
could they be free of convulsions

she asked about the trigger
whether the word

whole

meant archaic
numbness or trauma

she didn’t know where
to put them

returned to the lilac bough
asphyxiated with callous rain

bricked leaves wrenched with gales
nothing if not upended

how could she tell
if they were alive

for the beholder of logic
the delusion of languor

she knew that if she was dead
there could still be a sense

of something other than
stillness

in the debris
as the world continued to move

either way
they would be carried along with it

Louise Mather is a writer and poet from England. You can find her on Twitter @lm2020uk and her work/upcoming work in Streetcake Magazine and The Cabinet of Heed

photo by Halanna Halila (via unsplash)

Two Poems—Jack B. Bedell

Lethologica

There’s no good
                                        reason
to swallow
                                        your words.
Let them float
                                        past
the tip of your
                                        tongue.
Say what you need
         to say                    now,
because you’ll be
         a ghost
                                        soon
enough.
                          Those white shoes
you have on
                                        look
just like chickens,
                                        and
there’s alligators
                                        waiting
right down the bank.

Ghost Swell, Henderson

“Find beauty, be still.”—W.H. Murray

This swamp never stops breathing.
          Find shade somewhere
                        and string up a hammock.

Close your eyes. The bug whine
          dips and swells, water
                        laps against the roots 

of trees. You’ll learn to hear
          distance, the sharp flaps
                        of wings. Quiet your mind

and you may even pick out
          claws scratching down cypress bark.
                        Keep at this until the sun

drops past the tree line and you’ll
          feel the hum of spirits
                        gathering on the lake’s surface.

Remember, you are always free
          to linger here. Just be still.
                        Mind your beating heart.

Jack B. Bedell is Professor of English and Coordinator of Creative Writing at Southeastern Louisiana University where he also edits Louisiana Literature and directs the Louisiana Literature Press. Jack’s work has appeared in Southern ReviewBirmingham Poetry ReviewPidgeonholesThe ShoreJuke JointOkay DonkeyEcoTheoThe HopperTerrainKissing Dynamite, and other journals. His latest collection is No Brother, This Storm (Mercer University Press, 2018). He served as Louisiana Poet Laureate 2017–2019. 

photo by Elvis Bekmanis (via unsplash)

Little Man—Charlotte Turnbull

It was his mother who wanted to keep the little man. At eleven-years-old Charlie still trusted her decisions, on the whole, but he didn’t think it would make a good pet. The boy didn’t want it in the house – he didn’t like the way it looked at her.

The thing was unconscious when Alice wrapped it in her waterproof jacket. She stroked its tiny arms to the sides of its body and bound it tight in breathable plastic. She barely felt the inflation of its tissue-thin lungs. One hand braced against the other so as not to crush it accidentally, she rushed up the path to the house – trying to keep its passage steady.

‘Find the bucket,’ she shouted to Charlie.

The little fellow had come around, easing his chin this way, then that, releasing his long beard where it had caught between her fingers. Huge black eyes, in a head the size of her thumb, blinked slowly then fixed upon her.

Theirs was a small cottage in the crook of the moor’s arm, garden brittle with granite and gorse. It had been Charlie’s only home, but there was a shy echo between them once his father had removed his belongings. Alice even found herself worrying that their elderly cat might die, leaving only the two of them.

On the last day of the holidays, Charlie started when his mother opened his bedroom door without knocking. She walked in, drew breath to speak, and paused.

‘What’s that?’ She sniffed.

‘What’s what?’ Charlie squawked unexpectedly, his voice breaking for the first time and amplified by the quiet. Charlie’s hands went straight to his own throat, to throttle the falsetto. Alice flinched, then laughed too lightly, unsettling herself with the silly idea that her son was possessed – that she was cohabiting with a new, unwanted housemate.

She threw up a window and suggested the walk.

Even in heavy rain Charlie and Alice preferred to be outside, their tread softened by thick needle mulch. Among the mossy boles that day the only cry was that of the buzzard. They shuffled home across a slippery welt of black stones over the river, and brushed through ferns to walk by the low granite stone rows that just about constituted a site of antiquity on a map. On walks with both parents, Charlie had always followed his mother, passing the shorter, sharp-ended standing stones, his father on the other side, passing along the taller ones. Now, feeling sullen and resentful, Charlie passed along his father’s old route. The cottage flashed at him through the pillars, like it was trying to keep him in sight, when he felt a pain in his foot and stopped. He braced himself on one of the slabs to upend his boot. A stone fell out and hit the creature, who would otherwise be easily mistaken for leaf mould, on the crown of his head.

‘Mummy!’ Alice ran back, alarmed by the sudden height to Charlie’s voice.

The pisky rubbed its head, looked balefully up at them, then collapsed unconscious.

‘Thank goodness you didn’t hurt him.’ Alice said.

It was naked but for the long beard between its legs. Slumped against the side, the pisky did not even glance at Charlie when he and his mother loomed, as giants, at the rim of the bucket on the kitchen table. It was inert, enthralled by his mother, making no effort to scale its smooth plastic walls.

‘Isn’t he sweet?’ Alice cooed. Its mouth curled up at her tone. The gaunt face; grassy dun-coloured hair, thin on top; stained beard and marble of a belly – Charlie wondered what his mother saw. Its lips peeled back to a mouthful of sharp black seeds. Alice clapped her hands delighted, and Charlie felt sick.

Instead of towelling his hair dry, his mother sent Charlie out into the rain again to collect moss and leaves. She prepared a ramekin of water with bread and cheese. They put it all in the bucket, but the little man continued to leer without moving. Alice mimed eating but still it didn’t move. She placed a morsel of bread on her tongue, and the pisky’s tongue rolled out – Alice pressed a crumb to it. ‘Charlie! He’s feeding from me!’

They had planned to bring their duvets to the sofa, to watch a film on their last afternoon at home. Charlie didn’t mention it as his mother squealed, letting the creature suck water from her fingertips. The little man grinned at her, lowering his face, black eyes narrowed under thick, nettle-leaf brows. Charlie shuddered. He took the cat to his bedroom, for time alone.

Wired for starting secondary school, Charlie heard his mother creep downstairs during the night to check on the thing in the bucket. He heard her whispers and wondered if she would come to the crack of his door too. He waited up late, then woke too early, unrested and shaky for his first day.

Charlie tipped the sandwich his mother had made him out of the lunchbox and was looking for a plastic bag to put it in, when she came down to find the thing had soiled itself.

‘I don’t want to be late.’ Charlie called from the kitchen, hearing his father’s car pull up outside. He stood on tiptoe to unbolt the door. When Alice didn’t appear to say goodbye, he went into the living room. She was singing Froggy Went A-Courting softly and running moist cotton wool gently across a tiny naked rump. The pisky, bent over, smirking back at her.

‘Bye,’ Charlie said. His mother smiled up at him. ‘I can’t wait to hear all about it this afternoon. Keep Little Man our secret. We wouldn’t want anyone taking him away,’ she said. She stood up to run her hand over soft hair gelled stiff, but Charlie ducked, so she blew him a kiss with one hand instead – the hand holding dirty cotton wool.

Charlie spent that weekend with his father. Alice spent Saturday at the kitchen table sewing a tiny pair of green felt trousers, tunic, and pointed hat – the bucket on a chair beside her.

She was wearied by the sleepless nights, but the little face looking back at her whenever she glanced at it made up for that. Every couple of hours she woke to rustling leaves downstairs. She would blearily finger-feed it a little milk and wipe it down. She dug out their old baby bottles but it would not accept the rubber teat, like Charlie hadn’t.

That night she fed it titbits from her salmon and vegetables, even giving it a drop of Sauvignon. She talked to it softly. It hung on her every word. It was lovely company, except when she lost sight of its hands beneath the beard, which was why she was making the clothes.

On Sunday morning she came down and found it still fast asleep. For a second, she worried it was ill. She stroked it and it came to snarling at her finger, then, remembering where it was, grinned at her with hooded eyes.

The cat was at the door trying to get outside, when she noticed the fur matted with white discharge under its tail. She hoped it had brushed up against something and wasn’t ill. In the kitchen she was surprised to find the wine bottle out on the table, uncapped and empty on its side. She hadn’t realised she’d finished it. It wasn’t like her not to put an empty straight into the recycling box, but there was no other explanation.

When Charlie was dropped home, his father stood on the doorstep, awkward as always now.

‘Is Charlie alright?’ he said. ‘He was a bit quiet.’

‘He doesn’t like meeting strangers.’ Alice folded her arms, but felt something like relief.

That night, she brought down their duvets to watch a film with popcorn. But halfway through the pisky tore the seams apart on its new tunic and trousers. It kicked the clothes into a pile then urinated over them. Disappointed, Alice sewed them back together in the kitchen, and fed it a bit of biscuit.

She missed the end of the film and found Charlie staring at the black glow of the credits.

‘You’ve missed the end,’ he said.

‘I don’t mind.’ She put her arms out to him, but he pulled away, dragging his duvet up the stairs to bed. He’d barely touched his popcorn, so she boxed it up to use as snacks for the little man.

Two weeks later it was Charlie’s birthday. The box on the kitchen table was huge. At breakfast Charlie slurped smoothie through a bendy straw, unable to keep a smile from his face.

‘You’ll never guess. Open it.’ Alice laughed.

But Charlie wanted to delay the pleasure – enjoying the attention, despite himself. He tapped it. It was hard, firm, hollow, cold.

‘Is it a book?’ He pressed his temples, grinning.

‘Come on,’ Alice was suddenly short. ‘I want to set it up.’

Charlie ripped open a large glass fish tank.

‘What’s it for – ’ he spoke slowly, not wanting to sound ungrateful.

‘Our Little Man!’ His mother squeaked at him.

Alice arranged the tank as she thought the pisky might like it. She had looked into cages too, but for some reason thought the tank was safer. The leaves and moss were in one corner, the ramekin in another. She had even taken Charlie’s old box of clitter collected from the tors and stacked the rocks up into a tiny folly, of sorts. But when the lid went on, the pisky threw the rocksagainst the glass front until the lid came back off.

‘Lid off?’ Alice spoke loudly, pointing at the lid. ‘Lid. Off?’

‘Why didn’t you get it a house?’ Charlie said, suddenly pitying the wild creature, scarlet, panting, with no privacy.

‘Because it might run away,’ she said.

They ate birthday pizza from their knees in the living room with the tank. The pisky pressed itself against the glass. Its face crushed flat, monstrous in miniature. Alice offered it a nibble of pizza, but the melted cheese caught in its throat. She held it by the feet, and flicked its back. It spat a little, recovered. She balled it tight against her chest.

‘Don’t worry, Charlie,’ she said, calming down. ‘He’s OK, see?’

Charlie watched it smile, sliding filthy toes into the shadow of his mother’s labouring chest. He lost his appetite. The cake didn’t even make it out of the cellophane before it was time for him to go.

Charlie opened the door to his father, who wore a party hat and feather boa, singing Happy Birthday To You at the top of his voice. Charlie wrapped his arms around him and was half carried down the path.

Alice closed the door before they’d passed out of the front gate. She had found patterns for dolls clothes on the internet and bought some expensive woollen tweed.

Charlie tried to finish his homework at the kitchen table. He could hear his mother in the living room. She’d bought a doll’s wardrobe, a miniature bed frame for the leaves and moss, and a dining table with six chairs for visitors it would never receive. She liked to spend time with it in the evenings and tonight it wore its new formal clothes happily – stroking the waistcoat; posing, one hand on a hip, the other running through its long beard. She was working on a second set, in midnight blue silk.

‘Don’t do that.’ She reprimanded it quietly. ‘I’m not laughing.’

Charlie knew what it was doing. He knew where its hands were. It had lived with them for a month now, and Charlie still wanted to put it back where they found it. ‘But it wouldn’t survive now,’ his mother had said firmly. ‘It needs us.’ Yet when she came down in the mornings Alice sometimes found threads of moss on the kitchen table, leaf skeleta on the sofa – it would never settle with the lid on its tank.

‘I’ve had enough,’ Alice snapped. ‘You never listen to me.’

Charlie couldn’t concentrate, his heart beating fast, wanting to know what would happen next. His mother staggered through the kitchen, buckling beneath the heavy glass tank. Charlie stood quickly, reaching to share the weight.

‘Stay out of this, Charlie,’ she said, so he sat back down. He heard the trap door to the old grain cellar whine open in the utility room.

‘Would you like to stay down here, or would you like to behave properly?’ Alice trudged, carefully, step by step. Charlie smelt the drifting peaty darkness. ‘Stop that! You horrible little thing.’

The lid was slammed back on, something heavy thudded on top of it. Alice dashed up the cellar stairs to run her finger under the tap at the kitchen sink. Water rushed into a tiny wound, thinning out bright, shining blood. Charlie, still smarting himself, did not look up.

‘He bit me,’ she said, amazed. She bled for a long time.

The following morning, his mother was tense. She grimaced when she accidentally caught her finger on something – the wound deeper than it had looked.

‘I don’t feel well,’ Charlie pushed away his bowl of cereal. He suffered from pain in his belly most mornings now.

‘You’re a big boy, Charlie.’ Alice sighed. ‘Eat up.’

Charlie thought the milk seemed oiled with pale yellow. It clung where it met the sides of his bowl. He swallowed down a ball of disgust.

They left the house, both avoiding the utility room, where the open trap door still yawned boggy breath.

Charlie got home before Alice and made his own snack, filling a glass with milk, pushing bread into the toaster. It was never as nice as when she delivered it in four neat triangles, he thought, and took the lid carefully off the kettle to fill it for her. A few minutes later Alice burst through the back door, forehead still sliced up with bad mood, and rushed down into the cellar.

‘Oh!’ She emerged slowly, the pisky swooned across the cup of her hands. She winced as it lolled against the finger it had mauled. ‘Charlie, it’s sick.’ The creature’s eyelids flickered, and Charlie knew it wasn’t. ‘Shit.’ His mother had never knowingly sworn in front of him. Charlie cringed to hear the crude word of the older boys upon her lips.

‘It might be thirsty. And give me that toast.’ She fed it from his plate and his cup. The little man began to revive. ‘Bring the tank up? I can’t – ’ She nodded down at the thing cradled in her arms.

In the cellar Charlie grasped the tank with wide arms. Its corners were sharp, the glass slippery. Concentrating hard to place his feet home on each of the narrow cellar steps, he was glad to get it back to the living room. He balled his hands to hide red palms. It had been heavier than he expected.

The rest of that week, Alice spoiled the pisky; feeding it from her good finger; leaving the room when she saw things she didn’t want to see. Charlie barely left his bedroom, but because of her sore finger he was forced to help his mother make nutritionally-sophisticated meals, much more involved than the food they heated up for themselves. She unthinkingly passed him knives he had never been permitted to touch as her finger got worse not better.

‘I’ll be scarred.’ She laughed, rolling her eyes. ‘With the shape of his little mouth.’

Her bandages yellowed with pus, smelling rich and nutty; Charlie had to remind her to change them.

‘Are you OK?’ Charlie asked one morning when he brushed past her and she yelped.

She smiled, stroked his cheek, but said nothing. Charlie stopped mentioning his tummy aches. He worried for her wet eyes and mallow pink cheeks. Her hair had become knotted as she stopped washing it. She kept the finger raised, except when driving, binding her forearm up and across her heart, so it could not get in the way.

That Friday night, Charlie found his mother slumped over the kitchen table with a baby-weaning book.

‘I think I’ve caught something,’ she said, wiping sweat from her forehead, passing him the book. ‘Can you feed Little Man?’

Charlie watched her limp the stairs to bed before shoving the book into the kitchen bin. In the living room, the creature was adjusting its cuffs, smoothing its lapels. It glanced at him and looked away. Charlie turned off the lights and went upstairs.

All evening he heard his mother’s bed creak and moan across the hallway as she struggled to rest. At midnight Charlie took her his own glass of water.

‘My lovely boy,’ she said, gulping it down, her eyes full of stars.

‘What shall I do?’ he asked, weakly.

‘I’m OK, pudding. You go to bed,’ she said.

A crash came from the kitchen, but his mother had fallen back into her hot fever.

Charlie looked at the string dispenser rolling to and fro on the floor in the moonlight. The creature took a length of string and lassoed it around the fridge handle. It turned, string across its shoulder, and heaved with a black-toothed grimace, eyes squeezed shut, to break the seal of the door. It had the incongruous strength of an insect.

It pulled up onto a shelf in the fridge door, using both arms to twist the top off a bottle. Then, balanced on the rim, it dropped its trousers and relieved itself into Charlie’s milk. It tugged up an armful of cold, hard melted cheese from the leftovers of Charlie’s pasta and vaulted onto the kitchen surface. It hurdled a teaspoon and slid across a plate tipped up to dry. The plate lost its purchase and smashed to the floor. The pisky didn’t look back. It was staring at the cat asleep in its basket.

The cat roused when the pisky touched the cheese to its nose. The cat nudged it, then took the morsel from the tiny hands, purring with satisfaction, ignoring the little man rubbing against it.

Charlie was revolted. He snatched the pisky up, trousers still around its ankles, and slammed back the bolt of the door to run out into the night.

Afterwards, Charlie curled up on the empty side of his mother’s bed, wiping a flannel across her face, offering her the paracetamol she kept in a prohibited cupboard in the bathroom. He read the instructions and took note of each time he gave her a dose, keeping an eye on the yellow curd creeping from under the bandage across her tight grey skin.

When it got light, he went downstairs and called the doctor.

‘You were very lucky. Any later and the infection might have spread to the whole hand,’ the surgeon said, on her discharge round.

‘I feel like I’ve lost a limb,’ Alice said, sore and low now the anaesthetic had worn off.

‘It’s only a finger. You’ll get used to it. This young man’ll help.’ She wondered who the doctor was talking about, then noticed Charlie on her other side.

When the doctor left the room, Alice placed her good hand into Charlie’s.

‘What about my little man?’ she asked, slurring.

‘Dunno,’ Charlie shrugged. ‘Think it ran away.’

‘Oh,’ she said, with a small, sad smile. She lifted her good hand to stroke his face, wondering when it had become so gaunt. ‘Could you open the window a crack, pudding?’ she said.

Charlotte Turnbull graduated from Oxford University and spent many years in in production and development for UK film and television. She now writes for television from Dartmoor, where she lives with her family. She had her first short story published this summer in Mslexia magazine and has another forthcoming this autumn in Crow & Cross Keys. She is @CharlieRatpig on Twitter.

photo by Annie Spratt (via unsplash)

Two poems—Grace Alice Evans

by the river

down by the river, we deprive
ourselves of our bodies. strip down to the bones
dampened by autumn’s longing breaths, the glow
of summer’s caresses ebbing away.
down by the river, we grieve
burdensome crystals plummeting
from our eyes — the tears which
we are still afraid to shed.
down by the river, we
lower our heads, rinsing our eyelashes
in the water, as we drink —
giving in to the lust to
feel.
down by the river, we hold
hands. defeated promises. oh, to
float away. to let our dreams take us,
their songs tender, lulling us into a boundless
slumber.
down by the river, i whisper my
amends —
i should have come alone.

a memory/in the chamber

the flare of daylight has long set behind the veils –
twilit gusts now rasp against the precise patterns.
i kneel on the floor, a centrepiece
in a sterile chamber, pastel halogen reflecting
against walls of glass. i should await
the moon, for the night-tide oeuvre, a perfect
time, but
i reach into the hollows of my mind,
recovering an image of what once was –
mahogany locks against smooth cheeks,
fingers intertwining with those of monsters, nails
bitten to the core
of the apple spit into embers of remorse,
making them burn,
as i turn
it over –
‘i long for you.’
oh, how i long for you.

Grace Alice Evans (she/her) is a LGBTQ+, mixed-heritage poet, writer, sound/visual artist and survivor, whose work explores living with mental illness, trauma, recovery, and the dichotomy between the inner and outer worlds. Grace’s social media handle is @gracealiceevans.

photo by Marc Wieland (via unsplash)