Two Poems—Susan Darlington

Moonbird

Moonbird glides while the town sleeps,
her silver wings blanketing dewy gardens
and parks where the heavy heads of flowers 
rest on pillowcases made out of petal.

She soars past windows that are shuttered 
against the night’s dreamtime intrusions,
her constellation wide eyes bright and alert
as they search for his slumbering house.

There’s a partial eclipse in her blink when,
her target coming into view, she hovers
and then wheels in diminishing circles
that bring her closer into his mind’s eye.

She soars through his yawning casement,
comes to rest on his moon shadowed sheets,
and watches his chest slowly rise and fall
before she gently gathers him up in her talons.

He blinks, suspended between sleep and wake,
and hangs helpless and naked in the empty air 
as she swoops over the still sleeping town
back to the warmth of her sunset high nest.

She drops him among swirling nebulae,
nestles down around his foetal body,
and as feathers melt into warm flesh
he dreams of sprouting wings of gold.

Autumn

Fox carries autumn on her back.

Windfall brambles that are sweet with frost
are slung in the hollow of her shoulder blades
and pinecones that are open to the breeze
line the valley ridges of her spine.

She slips across fields, strands of fur
that snag on fence posts and barbed wire
flaring brightly through the mist
before tumbling into a carpet of golden leaves.

She scoops handfuls of these crisp sunbursts,
pulls the harvest moon into her eyes,
and tricks summer into giving her five-minutes
from each day. She takes them into the woods,

checks that she’s not being watched,
and caches the daylight in a den.
She stands guard while, in a nearby clearing,
leaves mulch and it starts to snow.

Susan Darlington’s poetry regularly explores the female experience through nature-based symbolism and stories of transformation. It has been published in Fragmented Voices, Algebra Of Owls, Dreams Walking, and Anti-Heroin Chic among others. Her debut collection, Under The Devil’s Moon, was published by Penniless Press Publications (2015). Follow her @S_sanDarlington

photo by Louis-Etienne Foy (via unsplash)

The House that Jack Built—Sarena Mason

This is the house that Jack built.

This is the entry: rows of shoes, feet still in them, bones dogs chew.
Slip them on and walk a mile, see what made dead people smile.

This is the living room: dead strings of eyes, bobbing low and bobbing high.
Pop yours out and pop theirs in, perspective’s easier to change than skin.

This is the kitchen: morgue-fridge, priests serve the slain with olives and figs.
Wash your hands in the blood of the lamb, season judgment, slice sins like ham.

This is the closet: body bags, cadaver jumpsuits for teens and old hags.
Tired of living? Pull out a hanger—be warned—death doesn’t kill sadness or anger.

This is the mirror, traveling souls, ghastly gate
for those who loved and loved to hate. Summon
a dead one, green from the grave, ask
what they regret and what they forgave. Too late
for them to change their mind, but you can
walk straight out the house and

live or die.

Sarena Mason holds a B.A. of Science in English, with a minor in psychology, from Middle Tennessee State University, where she was awarded the Homer J. Pittard Creative Writing Award scholarship. 

photo by Dan Meyers (via unsplash)

Wish You Were Here—Gemma Elliott

The first person to contact the police was Mrs Melville, of Barnacle Crescent. She told them that she passed by the houses every day but had never noticed anything amiss. Mrs Melville didn’t know any of the residents of this neighbouring suburban street, but she knew that they always kept their gardens very tidy, and had nice cars and neat window dressings, so she could think of no reason for them to be anything other than polite law-abiding citizens. 

On Thursday morning, on her way to work at the bank, Mrs Melville passed down Anchor Road and noticed that not one of the eight households had returned their recycling bin to their property. This was noteworthy because the recycling bins are emptied on Tuesdays, and surely no person of sound mind would leave a bin on the street for 48 hours. Not a nice street like that, in a nice area like this. Mrs Melville filed this away as unusual but continued on to her workplace. 

On her journey home, the bins remained at large, and so Mrs Melville, requiring an answer to this puzzle, stopped her car and knocked on the eight doors of Anchor Road with no answer. There were no lights on inside, but cars were parked on driveways. She did notice that the small sailboat, usually wedged beneath a lean-to at 2 Anchor Road, was gone. Mrs Melville called the police but was told not to bother them with civil matters. They said that she could complain about a missed bin collection or a neighbourly dispute – they weren’t entirely sure which grievance Mrs Melville had – directly to the local council.

The second person to contact the police was Ernie, a delivery driver. Anchor Road was on Ernie’s schedule for the weekend, with four parcels of online shopping to go to three houses. Not one house answered his knock, and he tried them all in an attempt to get a neighbour to take in the parcels. It was really strange for nobody to be in; there was always some keen person who waits home all day for their delivery, but the reason Ernie called the police was that he discovered, when opening a letterbox to forcefully shove through a smallish parcel, that 7 Anchor Road was entirely filled with sand. The golden granules poured out onto his trainers and Ernie watched for several minutes until a live crab tumbled out and he turned and ran back towards his van. 

There was water leaking from beneath the door of 6, he now saw. The police took note of what he told them but didn’t ask any follow up questions. He stashed the four technically undelivered parcels in an empty blue wheelie bin and moved on.

The third person to contact the police was Andrea Murdoch, raising concerns about her sister and family who live at 4 Anchor Road. Andrea’s sister hadn’t turned up for Sunday lunch, and wasn’t answering her phone. Andrea had decided to leave going round to check on things until Monday, she has her own young family to worry about after all, but on Monday morning received a postcard from her sister, an old-fashioned beach scene with girls in frilly swimsuits and men sporting handlebar moustaches, that simply read: ‘GONE TO THE SEA’ in what was definitely her sister’s handwriting. It didn’t have a stamp. 

Only when the search term “Anchor Road” was flagged up as a repeat offender did the police launch an investigation but nothing that they found took them anywhere but to the water. They shovelled sand and seaweed, evicted jellyfish, contacted elderly anglers, plotted routes to the beach, enlisted snorkellers, questioned surfers, and found nothing. Yet it seemed, with no evidence to the contrary, that all of the families had indeed taken to the sea.

Gemma Elliott lives in Glasgow, Scotland and works in the charitable sector. She has recently published short fiction with Paragraph Planet and The Babel Tower Notice Board. Gemma is also the former co-editor of Letters to Barnacle and has a PhD in literature. She can be found on Twitter @drgemmaelliott.

photo by Philipp Klausner (via unsplash)

She Tells People That She Doesn’t Believe in Witches—Wyeth Renwick

She tells people that she doesn’t believe in witches, but
she doesn’t laugh as hard as the others at the old
woman who yells at kids walking by her herb garden.

She tells people that she doesn’t believe in witches, but
she still raises her arm to her neck, as if to twiddle that pentacle
necklace she threw away years ago, when she’s nervous.

She tells people that she doesn’t believe in witches, but
whenever she sees a rosemary bush, she always looks around
to make sure nobody’s watching before stuffing some in her pocket.

She tells people that she doesn’t believe in witches, but
she bows her head and closes her eyes whenever
anybody mentions Salem.

She tells people that she doesn’t believe in witches, but
when her friends ask her what she’s whispering under
her breath, she just shrugs her shoulders and hides her hands.

She tells people that she doesn’t believe in witches, but
she always stays as far away from the fire as possible,
as if one lick will bring pitchforks and torches.

And even though she tells people that she doesn’t believe in witches,
at night, in the dark, when nobody is around to watch,
she’ll stroke the wart she found nestled at the base of her back.

Wyeth Renwick’s poetry and short stories have appeared in issues and anthologies by The Confessionalist, Down in the Dirt, Daily Drunk Mag, and more. She is the founder and editor of the online poetry journal the tide rises, the tide falls. (litmag Twitter: @TFalls)

photo by Content Pixie (via unsplash)

and so long the night—Martins Deep

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                                                                        to strangle your joy,
                                                                        ghosts ride to the battlefield
                                                                        on your pillow, at nightfall.

& at nightfall they raid,
because, those whose spears are icicles
do not go out to war in the sun.

at daylight, they perch on your clavicles, biding|   
                                                       & at night, they peck at your eyes till it splits into thin shards
of a mirror trapped full with a thousand reflections|  there is papa in a piece, barking/snarling;
                                                                                              you good for nothing boy!

 you also discover your heart|
imagery:  a piece of brittle mica
                 in the hand of a schoolboy
                 about to attempt shotput on a mount.

nostalgia sheds its skin into things that drink silent screams|
                                                                          under the twin blood moon in your eyes

to get rid of the lingering taste of memory’s breastmilk,
you rinse your mouth with a goblet of firewater         [a potion you really want to believe
                                                                                            can cure you into an amnesiac]
vices, again, offers you other ways 
to be weaned…

27 June/2008    but by means of a scent/song, dreary scenes wander
                             into your web of thoughts
                                                        [the one where you entangle yourself in the process
                                                        till your adam’s apple is positioned between its canine]

bleeding, tonight, you pelt your mother’s god cuss words,
& hope to watch him cloak/shield himself in the grey plumage
of this lamenting owl in the cavity of a dead oak|      to grieve for the faults in the idea of
                                                                                how this tender chalice, that you are, must bear 
                                                            magma to his lips, yet keep from withering. 
but because there is no chink in his armor,
all you hurled at him rebounds towards you|       as dewdrops on your hair.

Martins Deep is a Nigerian poet & photographer. He is passionate about documenting muffled stories of the African experience in his poetry & visual art. Writing from Kaduna, or whichever place he finds himself, the acrylic of inspiration that spills from his innermost being tends to paint various depictions of humanity/life in his environment. His creative works have appeared, or are forthcoming on Barren Magazine, Chestnut Review, Mineral Lit Mag, Agbowó Magazine, Writers Space Africa, Typehouse Literary Magazine, The Alchemy Spoon, Dream Glow, The Lumiere Review, Variant Literature, & elsewhere. He is also the brain behind Shotstoryz Photography and can be reached on twitter @martinsdeep1.

photo by Priscilla Du Preez (via unsplash)

The Spider—Vera Hadzic

Heartbreak is a spider resting in your chest. I read an unhealthy amount of romance novels, and I know what heartbreak is supposed to feel like – a crack in your ribcage, a sharp, stabbing pain that splits your soul in two. I expect it should feel as though something inside you is broken, but I can’t feel any breakage. I feel around – my hand wanders down my sternum, probing at the place where I can feel the strongest heartbeat. It all seems to be intact. Heartbreak, it turns out, is something else entirely. It’s a spider resting inside of you – its body settled over your heart, and its long legs stretching out to poke at your ribs, your lungs, your solar plexus. The hard, dull pressure of its black body builds up knots in your cardiac tissue, so that you can feel it tugging at every breath you try to take. It’s an ache similar to anxiety, or stress – the little metal ball that makes your pulse speed before you give a speech – only this one reaches out with its eight spindly legs, and tickles you with that blunt, fuzzy feeling.

I am sitting at the kitchen table. My coffee is getting cold in front of me. I should drink it before I have to microwave it or take it cold. The spider in my chest twitches. I want to coil into a spiral like a centipede and pretend the world doesn’t spin around me. I want to drink my coffee, or check my phone. The door is open; I hear forest song from behind the house, crickets and birds and crackling branches, and I want to go outside. I don’t do any of those things. I don’t seem to be able to move.

“Oh,” I say, finally, breaking the shell of silence. My little dog, Odo, perks up his ears. I massage my breastbone, as though it’ll dislodge the spider whose legs sprawl over it.

There is a knock on the door; it’s Leslie, the mailman. Have to get up. It’s probably instinct that takes over my motor controls and propels me to my feet, drags me to the door, hooks a smile onto my face. “Hi, Leslie. Yep, that’s for me. Yes, doing well. How about you? Good to hear. Thanks so much. I’ll definitely think about it. Have a nice day.”

The mail gives me something to focus on, and it reminds my fingers how to move, how to curl and press as I slit open the envelopes. The spider shifts a little bit, gets more comfortable. We can live like this, it promises. Its words thrum their way up my nerves, as though the spider is plucking them like guitar strings. Haven’t you heard of symbiosis? This is manageable.

I have to force myself to keep moving, or else I’ll be trapped in stillness again. I’ll have to shake this off, I tell myself. This should not be a big deal for me, anyway.

Writing is out of the question. The spider’s body quivers when I think of it. It’s going to be another unproductive day, and if my editor, Jack, calls tonight, I won’t have the energy to lie to him. There will be a touch of hardened concrete in his voice when he asks me to remember my deadlines. I can already hear the acidity eating away at his consonants when he wonders why he put so much effort into securing this grant for me – the money which paid for me to live in the woods, by myself, and write. Then, he will finish with a salve, a little bit of gentleness coating his words as he tells me, again, that he believes in me. I’ve never liked when people say that. Why believe in me when I don’t believe in myself? It seems like a waste of belief. Instead of writing, I wash the dishes. I microwave my coffee. I vacuum the living room. Keep moving, I think, and the spider agrees. The phone I left on the kitchen table vibrates; the spider throbs within me when I hear it. The last message I received spawned it, after all – but it’s just my mother, asking after my garden.

It’s all right, soothes the spider when I start feeling lonely. I’ll keep you company.

Odo brushes up to my leg and rubs his ears against my pants. I imagine he can sense the spider; I’m amazed he’s not repelled. I suppose he, at least, trusts me still.

We go for a walk, Odo, the black spider, and I. Outside, a grey-misted sky settles down around us as we follow the vague paths in the forest. For all his unconditional love, Odo is delighted to bound away from me; he plots an adventurous course as he struggles over tree trunks, and nuzzles the dirt with his nose. His tiny body is quickly lost in the bushes, but wherever he goes, he makes rustling noises, and I can follow the waves of green that ripple through the undergrowth. I focus on smelling the moist, earthy odour of an atmosphere heavy with expected rain.

Eventually, Odo returns to me. By now, he has marked the most promising tree trunks as his own, and ordinarily, I would circle back home and get back to business. But I know that there will be no writing today, and the spider in my chest eggs me on, so I carry us further into the forest, where the slant of muted sunlight is less familiar to me, and the mossy bumps on birches and eldritch whorls on stones are not ones I have seen before.

I perch myself on a rock, inspect the mud that has caked the soles of my sneakers, and pet Odo’s little head as he whines at my knee. I believe he feels sorry for me, given that I have a spider in my chest cavity. I coo at Odo to make him feel a little less bad. One of the spider’s legs taps at my rib; the vibration scuttles up my skeleton and makes me shiver.

“Do you want to go home?” I ask Odo.

No, complains the spider. Let’s stay here. It’s old, and there’s no one to bother us.

A flash of fury buzzes through me. You’re a guest in my body, I scold it angrily. You don’t get to decide what I do. You’re not part of who I am.

We head back to the house, and the spider sits in sullen silence.

Jack doesn’t call. I fill my afternoon with odd jobs I have neglected, and I eat dinner in front of the TV, ignoring the twinges that the spider sends from inside of me. I only think of it when I debate whether I should tell my mother about what has happened. I wouldn’t mention the spider, of course – I would just share my bad news.

I dismiss the idea quickly. It arose from a childlike instinct to seek comfort in motherly love, but I know my mother. She would never understand how news like this could induce a spider to move in. In fact, she wouldn’t understand why I was unhappy. Weddings are happy occasions, she would insist. You are too sensitive.

When it’s almost ten o’clock at night, and Jack has still not called, I pronounce myself safe. It’s a smidge of goodness that I savour, melting on my tongue as I shuffle my way to bed. I’ve never slept with a spider in my chest before, and Odo seems skeptical as he adopts his usual croissant-shaped position at my side. Behave yourself, I warn the spider. It still seems unwilling to talk after my harsh words in the woods.

When I wake up the next morning, I discover two problems. The first I detect immediately, as it woke me up: Jack is calling. I pick up my phone.

“Hi, Manon. I hope I didn’t wake you. Listen, your deadline’s coming up.” He launches into his usual monologue, taking me up and down the ridges and dips of his appraisal of my work and my situation. Eventually, I can feel us trudging up to a climax, a peak where he expects me to speak; my words will be the bridge to the next hill, the next idea. As we approach, and I prepare to give a response, I find my second problem.

“Mm,” I try. “Mmmm.”

“Sorry? What’s that? This is you, Manon, right?”

I feel more annoyed than appalled. I seem to be unable to make much of a sound; vibrations travel up from my voice box, but it’s difficult to open my mouth. It’s as though it’s been glued shut. The more I think about it, the more my entire throat feels stuffed – clogged with something that feels like tufts of Kleenex, or cotton candy.

Somehow, I survive the phone call with Jack without being able to donate many sounds apart from muffled tones. He gathers that he just woke me up and promises to call later. Before he hangs up, he hauls me along for another monologue, just as familiar as the last one.

When I am freed, I experiment with my mouth. I feel something snap as I strain to open it as wide as possible – not a brittle snap, but the squishy, squelchy feel of strings of chewing gum being pulled apart. Whatever is blocking my throat is soft and sticky. I have a pretty good guess as to what it is. I shove my finger between my teeth and manage to snag some of it in the crook of my finger. I pull it out for a closer inspection; it’s wet from my saliva, but I rub it across my fingers and peer at it.

As I thought, I conclude. Spiderweb. I direct a reproachful thought to the spider in my chest.

I can’t help it, the spider says defensively. I didn’t think you’d mind.

I make it to the bathroom around eleven o’clock that morning. I should probably have gotten up earlier, but somehow I convinced myself to lie back down, close my eyes, and lose myself in the twisting tunnels of my duvet, surrounded by softness, warmth, and the smell of clean linen sheets. I turn on the lights in the bathroom despite the sunlight streaming in through the window; I stretch my mouth open and angle it toward the mirror, trying to see down into the depths of my throat. The back of my mouth resembles a clump of cloud; the strands of spiderweb crisscross in front of each other so that it all looks like a white fuzz.

I scoop out as much of the webs as I can with my toothbrush, but my gag reflex proves troublesome. I try to flush it out with water, too, but the spider’s web is resilient, and while I feel the tapestry in my throat loosen, there’s no hope of getting it all out. The spider in my chest squirms through my ministrations.

After giving up, I figure I’ll have to go through the day with a cobwebbed throat. A small, golden wind has picked up in the meantime, and I accompany Odo on a walk. I skip breakfast; having spiderwebs in my throat has gnawed away at my appetite. This time, I don’t steer us into the forest. Instead, we follow the dirt track that spears its way through the woodland to the village. For half a second, I consider trekking all the way in and stopping by the clinic. But I don’t feel a doctor will be much help. As soon as I get over the heartbreak, the spider will leave of its own accord.

Go into the trees, the spider sings as I walk. Let’s go into the forest.

I am adamant. I am still irritated about the cobwebs, and am loath to give the spider in my chest anything to be happy about. I focus on the ruts in the road formed by tire-tracks, and I listen to looping threads of cricket-song and bird-chirp. The spider sulks in my chest; I can feel its legs digging deeper into my muscles and my bones. Something flutters in the crevices of my mind, and some part of me longs to step off the road, to feel leaf-carpet underfoot and find all the oldest shadows between the trees. It’s the spider’s doing, and it makes me uneasy. With sweaty palms, I spin around and we return to the house.

There’s not much good waiting for me there. As I pull my phone from my pocket, the screen lights up with a missed call: it’s from Claire. The spider in my chest shivers and I feel its legs twitch. It’s not unexpected that she would check in on me. When she told me yesterday that she was engaged, I said nothing to her; the phone screen faded to black, message read but unanswered. I sat like a slug, squatting on my own silent slime. I let my coffee get cold and then I washed the dishes.

I don’t know how to explain my silence. I count it a blessing that I can’t talk. I will write to her, I decide, and tell her I’m sick, with a headache, a fever, and a sore throat. I will promise to talk to her more later. And I will tack on a congratulations at the end to prove that I read her message.

I tell myself I’ll do it as soon as I wash my hands. Instead, I bustle through my garden, and take special care to water my pathetic tomatoes. When I make it back inside, the phone is ringing. I pick up out of anxiety; it’s Claire. I curse myself. The spider’s legs are trembling, sending tremors up my blood vessels. My head is pounding already and she hasn’t spoken a word.

“Manon? Is it you? I didn’t hear anything from you yesterday. Are you okay?”

I attempt to make a sound, delivering a bout of incoherent mumbling.

“Sorry? I can’t hear what you’re saying.”

I manage to croak out a syllable – “sore” comes out, mangled by the silk nets in my throat.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Are you sick? I’m so sorry.”

“Mmm,” I say, relieved. In a few moments I will hang up and pretend the connection cut out. The spider is entrenched deep over my heart, and the pressure builds the longer I stay on the line. Claire’s voice is cool and temperate as always, and it sends me back to my best memories, the ones that glow the brightest. She is saying something, but I lose track of the words; I let myself catch on the sounds, the way they glide together, the glissando of her speech. Behind it, I can hear a meshwork of other noises: someone else’s laughter, the screech of wind, and the slow crash of waves. This is her life, I think to myself as I close my eyes. This is where she belongs.

“Manon, are you hearing me?”

Where do I belong?

“Mmm.” I’m suddenly sure that the spider in my chest is growing. Its weight is almost unbearable now, crushing my heart beneath its fat body; and its legs lengthen, too, becoming dark, knobbly swords curving around my side. I am afraid that my ribcage will explode; or that a leg will pop one of my lungs, or that my heart will be pulped to a sludgy mess of blood and tissue. Hang up, I tell myself. Hang up.

“I really hope you can come to the wedding,” Claire is telling me. “I know we’re far away, ‘lost on the Scottish moor’ as you once wrote, and that you hate leaving your little town. But I would love for you to meet Oliver. And after all – you’re my best friend. You have to be there to pledge me away!”

“Mmm.”

“Look, Oliver wants to meet you, too – he’s dying to know who you really are, he says. He even offered to pay for your ticket – I told him no way, she’s a published author, she earns enough – ”

“Mmm.”

“I keep forgetting you’re sick. Listen, I’ll go now, please take care of yourself. And write back to me soon about the wedding. Love you, Manon!”

The line goes dead. My throat is thick with spiderwebs and the want to cry.

Let’s go into the forest, whispers the spider in my chest.

No, I hiss back. No, there’s nothing for me in the forest.

Let’s go into the forest, begs the spider in my chest.

And soon I am running. I have no shoes, I have no coat; copper sunlight bathes my bare arms and crowns me in amber. Odo yelps and scurries after me. I tear through my garden, and I see that the trees are reaching out with their bony fingers. The forest invaginates me; it swallows me whole, and folds around me. Odo barks at my heels. The spider in my chest is elated. Its legs tickle my ribs with excitement.

I run until the patches of sky visible through the canopy are pomegranate-red. Somewhere along the way, Odo and I became separated. It hurts me to lose him but I have to hope he will find me again. There’s a rational part of my mind that shushes the storm in my head: it tells me I’m not in my right mind, but I keep going.

I crumple over a snowy-white boulder carpeted in lichen. My eyes drift over the things around me; I see symbols, pictures written into white birch-bark, secrets left behind by moss lettering and fairy-feet. Patterns are etched into the soil beneath me; worn roots curl into spirals, and mushrooms, bearded with mold, make ancient villages in the shadow of the trees. It is darkening and my thoughts are clear of Claire’s voice. I think the spider has stopped growing, for now. It is unmoving, serene with pleasure. I fall asleep with the rock as my pillow.

My dreams are harvested from my memories. They make me antsy and show me things that are no longer real. Claire and I are best friends, they claim; we trust each other more than anything, they say. Swear it, I challenge them, but they make no reply. They show me the faces of my other friends, the girls who I entrusted with gossamer dreams, who drifted away one by one. I feel Claire’s shoulder blades jutting against my hands as I hug her goodbye at the airport. She is going to Scotland to study. She is going to come back, she vows. Everything will be as it always was.

I awake under the eye of the stars. Get moving, counsels the spider. They are coming to find
you.

My throat feels stuffed again. I send a tentative finger into my mouth – while I slept, the spider wove more webs. My breath comes out hot and droopy against my teeth. My esophagus swelters from the weight of the spiderwebs. I am sure they have doubled in number since I fell asleep. When I lurch to my feet, my stomach is unsettled. I wonder if it’s because I didn’t eat anything.

They are coming for you, the spider chants. We have to get moving.

That’s when I hear the barking. It’s Odo; and when I look behind me, I see the white sway of a flashlight. Odo has brought Leslie, the mailman, to search for me. “Manon! Where are you?”

The spider is right. I can’t let them find me. I entertained the thought of going to the doctor earlier today, but now I see that it is unthinkable. I imagine how my X-ray would look. They would see my body, all blue and wispy, and then right over my heart, a hulking bulb with eight legs and countless eyes. Nobody would ever trust me again; I would be the crazy writer who let a spider live in her chest. I have to overcome my heartbreak on my own, and then the spider will leave me.

I lance into the trees. My feet are bloody and cracked from sprinting over fallen twigs, and my socks are soaked. At the moment, though, my greatest discomfort comes from my stomach. It gurgles and wrings itself about; white-hot flares travel up to my brain, and my shoulders tremble with chills.

I check over my shoulder; the flashlight has vanished, for now. I lean against a tree, feel the rough bite of the bark scratch against my neck. I drop my hand to my middle. I feel something – a lump stretching at the walls of my stomach. My fingers probe it gently. It’s spongy, and it’s not smooth, but ribbed with bumps. I can hear it sloshing in my digestive fluids.

It’s an egg sac, I realize. Those are your eggs.

The spider gives me no reply. Its body is filled with an electrical thrill. It is listening to some song in the forest that I cannot hear.

I should be horrified that the spider laid its eggs inside of me. The egg sac protrudes against my hand, and I wonder what it would look like in the X-ray. I also wonder what I will do when they hatch. I sit down and heave my hand against my chest, where the spider pushes against my heart.

When I was first published, all of my friends wrote to me, even the ones that had already gone – moved, gotten married, fallen out of contact. They told me they were proud and that they had always believed in me. Claire was the most ecstatic: she saw the success of my first novel as proof that I could accomplish anything. She almost made me buy into the idea that the world was mine for the taking. She winked at me and told me she looked forward to reading my next book. There was no way for either of us to know, then, that there would not be another book. That I wouldn’t be able to move on. That I couldn’t live beyond the past.

The night wind cuts into me. Run, the spider urges. I think it’s worried for its eggs. The pangs of pain in my stomach are intolerable; I cannot run. But I do haul myself to my feet, and I limp on, my hand brushing against branches. The sharpest twigs lacerate my palm, slicing it open, but it feels good when warm blood pours over the welts.

Run! The spider is shrieking at me. Its legs patter restlessly; I know that it is jittery. But I feel oddly calm. There is the music of the forest at night to wrap around me as I walk, to settle over my shoulders like a mantle, and the crickets hop alongside my steps.

What will you do, the spider screams from inside my chest, if they find you? You will never be normal again. They will cast you out! You will lose all that you are.

If my throat was not plugged with spiderweb, I would use my voice and speak aloud so that the forest could know this, too. All I am is the past.

Claire is never coming back to me. She will get married in Scotland and she will never be mine again. And if she isn’t mine, then I cannot be hers. If I am not hers, if I am not theirs, what is there left for me to be?

The forest closes in around me, embracing me in a blanket of silver and black. I can almost fool myself into thinking I belong here. I can no longer write. I have no one left to trust. What better place for me than floating in this ocean of grass and sky, of tree and mud?

We have to go! The spider writhes inside me and leaves tangles of agony in my chest.

My life has changed, but I haven’t, I tell the spider. I have already lost all that I was.

The forest draws me in closer; I feel its ancient shadows snake over my arms, curve around my ankles like magic bracelets.

Deeper, deeper, pleads the spider. Let’s go faster.

The forest is changing me; and why not, I reflect, let it choose who I should be? The spider is fearful, but it presses me to go on. With each step, Odo and Leslie tumble further behind, and I shed a follicle of my skin, becoming something else, something other than whatever I thought I could be.

I wasn’t ready for metamorphosis when things changed for me, I confess to the spider. I couldn’t evolve the way Claire did. But like this, I don’t need to think about changing. I can just let it happen.

Keep going, the spider whines. Its legs constrict my chest with their girth. Keep going.

I am about to, but something makes me stop. The spider practically deflates in disappointment. It twitters furious sounds of concern, and demands what’s wrong. I see someone in front of me, although that little rational part of my brain is perfectly aware that there is no one really there. My mind has conjured a figure, a human figure with two arms, two legs, and a face.

At first, I think I know who it will be: this is Claire, come back to claim my identity. She comes closer, though, and I waver. It is not Claire. There is a different feel around her, a texture that I know well but struggle to place.

Who is it? The spider swells with anger in my chest.

It’s Manon, I say. It’s me.

A Manon I had never become. A Manon rooted in the past – but beyond it.

She evaporates, dissolving like sand in the wind when I reach out and touch her. That’s all right, I reason; I created her anyhow. She is me but changed. Not changed by the forest, but by my own self. Changed by the river of thought that flows within my very soul, changed as I ride the waves of time into my future. Odo’s howls reach my ear, and I cannot think of a reason to take another step. The forest crunches together; it huddles into itself, recoils from me not in distaste, but in understanding. I am not its creature.

I bend down and lie on my back. Stars wheel overhead like silver carousels. The wind sings to me – will it sing me to sleep?

Before it has a chance, there is a searing, tearing wail. It is the spider in my chest; it has become engorged, and for the first time I can see the mound of its body straining against my breast, a bulge beneath my white tee-shirt. There is no room for fear left in me. The spider is fiery with rage; its legs spasm, drumming erratically against my bones, so that I can feel the vibrations thudding all along my spine. That rational part of me knows what is about to happen, and I know there is nothing I can do to stop it.

The spider bursts out of my chest in a fountain of blood and cartilage. It has ripped itself from my body – flaps of my skin dangle uselessly from the gaping hole, and a spray of blood showers my face. Even the rational part of my brain cannot rationalize the pain – having your chest turned into a volcano, your own blood scalding like lava is unfathomable, so I almost don’t feel it.

The spider’s enormous black body spurts from the hole, its beady eyes glossed over with my blood, clawing its way out with its long, nimble legs. It doesn’t spare a moment to say goodbye; it lunges off of me, and skitters away into the darkness. After all, I have rejected it. I chose my own change.

The next thing I feel is a second eruption, a smaller one, deep in the rugae of my stomach. The egg sac has popped; the eggs have hatched. I can feel them now, a legion of tiny, eight-legged dots, scrambling in my stomach. Some of the spiders are dissolved by my stomach acids and digestive enzymes; I feel sorry for them when I hear their high-pitched, dying squeals.

But others succeed in fighting their way through my cardiac sphincter, and they clamber their way out of the stomach and up my esophagus. They ravage their way up to my throat and I turn onto my front so that they can cascade out of my mouth, a whole army of glistening baby spiders, taking with them all the shreds of their mother’s spidersilk. When the last of them has finally dropped from my lips, I fall onto my back, and feel my blood leak into my shirt.

“Finally,” I say, now that my throat has cleared, “it’s just me again.”

Odo trots up and buries his head in my hair, and there is Leslie, his flashlight falling on the gaping hole in my chest where the spider once nestled. Either Odo or Leslie tells me not to worry, that someone is on their way to help. Privately, both Odo and Leslie doubt I will live, but they’re wrong. I’ll make it. Moonlight pours into my chest, spilling rivers of pearly white over my heart. It’s lucky, I think, that my heart isn’t broken.

Vera Hadzic is a writer from Ottawa, Ontario, studying English literature at the University of Ottawa. In the past, her poetry has been published in online publications and in youth anthologies. Currently, she is expanding her academic and artistic interests, and exploring short fiction, speculative fiction, and poetry.

photo by Peter Oslanec (via unsplash)

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)