Three Poems—Aepril Schaile

sure, I am the Girl

sure, I am 
        the Girl
in/of
        the forest.

but I am also
        the Wolf.

and I have cut
        myself, out of my
        own belly, with a

        double-headed axe.

riding and howling.
holy red
              blood-letting.

hunting. 
hunted. 

by the lunatic light
              of the
              moon.

Hagtree

The Moon is a Hexagon
unleashing blood powers
in the sign of the Twins

7 thorns 
              for each trouble 
I bury them 
under the 
hagtree 

7 thorns 
              for 7 kinds of anguish 
I bury them 
under the 
hagtree 

6 sides and 7 corners 
12 signs and 7 planets 
2 pairs of 3 sisters, curses for 7
generations 14 days until the eclipse of the
sun 

the stars are ablaze tonight 
they each have position; a
fate-say the planets have hours 
the Moon has mansions 
the Moon is very red, 
              yes, 
              I see red 

I bury my troubles
under a 
hagtree 

I, now, Cailleach 
winter hag, 
winter hag, 
winter hag 

gnarled arms twisting upward,
              ah that red Moon! 
a fae silhouette, 
              ah that night air! 
they daren’t 
              cut me down 
I am a mouth full of curses,
                             a triumph! 

I can smell storax through my veil
I can smell the blood in the land I
can hear myself howling

I do not see a world of the living

I do not see a world of the living. 
oh dark oh dark oh dark 

I walk the mountains 
                             clouds race past stars 
I scythe bane plants for my basket 

beneath a Moon gone to blood 
                             chanting them to power 

they come forth as their spirit 
                             Lus Mór. Great Herb. 
                             Venus. Saturn: not to be ingested 
lest it burst one’s heart 

I do not see a world of the living. 
oh dark oh dark oh dark 

                             there’s such a grief in me; Witch’s Bells 
                                      Ringing ringing ringing 
I’ve been burned at the stake so many times 
             I laugh as my wings open with the rising heat 
I know this story; get your pitchforks 

I’m cast like a villain: 
             like a Blackthorn. Bitter as fuck. 

I do not see a world of living 
Oh dark oh dark oh dark 

I saw a raven in a Larsen trap 
             Mór Rigan in a cage 
             yes, she foretold the end of the world; 
                                        in the hot sun in this field 
They’re legal as long as you 

             leave water and food 
             rancid offerings 

I’m an outlaw; a heretic 
             I undo the knots and open the door 
delicate creature 

                            I held her brief and soft 
                                                          like air 
                                           she screamed in silence 

before I set her free 
flying weak and fierce and fast to the trees 

             I know, I know, 
                            I’m a wild thing, too… 

I do not see a world of living 
Oh dark oh dark oh dark 

I’ve a throne in the forest 
Sunday families out walking hear me weep 
(Ah that was nothing…c’mon…) 

             But I’m in the river, 
                            washing, washing, washing 
                            the bloody garments 
             I’m tripping over trash dumped 

And you…what’s that? 
Ah, you have butter and honey 
Pfft. 
             You all need to listen; I have advice 

My chants will win the war; stop 
                                            talking. Stop.

I do not see 
             a world of the living 

*“I do not see a world of the living.” 
—words of the Irish goddess The Morrigan; Her prophecy in the Cath Maige Tuired

Aepril Schaile is an American Witch living in Ireland. She frequents standing stones and forests with her fae canine Gwyddie; her phone is perpetually at capacity with photos of him. Aepril is a bellydancer and performance artist who has toured the US and Europe. She has been published in Coven Poetry Journal and Mistress magazine, and has performed her poetry in conjunction with dance at various events including The Irish Network for the Study of Esotericism and Paganism (INSEP)’s Magic(k) & Festivals Conference at UCC, Soul Noir in Dublin, and ABRAXAS Dance Theatre’s Rara Avis in Boston, MA. She holds an MFA in Interdisciplinary Art.

photo by Jr Korpa (via unsplash)

Two Poems—Becki Hawkes

Cold spell

Today we are having the talk
about witches.
We go to the woods

and stand under the tree
with the leaves that make me think
of brimstone butterflies, all restless green gold for go – 

or scuffed and crushed into mud.

You tell me again
about things you have done to witches
about the things they have done to you

and I tell you the story
that ends with a burning, about how I stood in a crowd

and let ash lick my skin, tender as snow, as I watched
a woman disintegrate

how not one of us said a word.

It’s been raining
and water falls through holly and webbed grey air
on to my head, your chest, our guilty arms.

We shiver, huddle close. We both know
that soon these woods will be white, too quiet
for excuses or amends.

We are ready now
for a cold spell, for a winter death.

Unseen
our own witch listens in, has been listening in for years,
her long wet ears curled round lungwort and crowded parchment

her fingers puffy and soft-gilled, primed
to curse us, smother us, tear off our limbs –

but hesitating
(heart’s red peeled bark)

itching to let us both live.

Medium uncool

Did that glass just move? My trusting fingers 
patch you through 
as you tease, trick, treat 

me to an ‘s’ 
for silence
an endless, answerless ‘y’. I’ve fallen

in love
through so many screens, sometimes suspect

I’ve loved only screens, the words
appearing like the answers to a spell:

crafted and double-edged, not always
what I had in heart. One summer

I danced all night, strained my arms
to the high country window, desperate
for a single bar, for the start of our song

but of course
your part was noteless. Like most ghosts

you have your own times:
your clouded Piccadilly Line mornings
your sleeping Tuesday afternoons

your trees like wet veins 
in the six pm lamplight.

I’m frightened 

not of you, but of a world without you:
your half-words haunt me.

I need to keep checking you exist.

Becki Hawkes lives and works in London, and has had poems published in Ink, Sweat and Tears, The Shore, Rust + Moth, Brittle Star, Pulp Poets Press, Little Stone Journal, Lunate Fiction, Wrongdoing Magazine and Perhappened. Her Twitter is @BeckiH_678.

photo by Faye Cornish (via unsplash)

Spinning Sugar—Fija Callaghan

Content warning: miscarriage, bereavement

The trains that rumbled up to Knaresborough station were rattly, conservatively-dressed things, not unlike the people who disembarked there. Nadia watched them from behind the window of the little shop. It was nestled on the open-air platform between the ticket window and a minuscule café that served American-style pancakes. She recognized most of the faces coming off the train. Many of them had come in when the shop had first opened, surreptitiously, ashamed of their indulgence, hiding behind words like ‘the train’s running behind is all, won’t be a minute…’

It had taken time for the staunch, stalwart Yorkshire people to trust a divorced woman running a business alone, and to trust the silky silver letters that spun across a banner the colour of midnight:

La Confiserie des Rêves.

The Candy Shop of Dreams.

Something more appropriate to a city like London, perhaps, than a little train station by the riverside. But the smells of sticky red fruit and smoky caramel were seductive, and besides, the trains were often late. 

Two passengers slipped into the shop. One was a retired teacher named Charlotte; she had moved north to be near her daughter, who was studying at a university in Leeds. The other woman was unfamiliar, a relative from out of town, probably. Nadia kept herself unobtrusively preoccupied as the women perused the displays nearest the counter, which were filled with mostly-harmless delights: melon and marigold pâtes de fruits to dream of childhood memories; bramble and hawthorn-berry for dreams of lost love. On a delicate glass stand, rose and lemonbalm caramels to mend discord as one slept. That had been a difficult recipe to get just right. There were some things even spun sugar couldn’t fix. 

Charlotte and her friend leaned over the sparkling array of pâtes de fruits, lined up like jewels in a treasure chest. Pale lemon and elderflower squares through all the shades of the rainbow to the deep, dark, blackcurrant and clove. Nadia cautioned against eating that one at bedtime. 

The woman gasped. “These look just marvellous! Do you really make them all yourself?”

Nadia smiled. “I do, yes.”

“However did you learn?”

“My grandmother taught me,” Nadia said. It had been her father’s mother, Mamie Antoinette, who had taught her the art of confectionery. Her mother’s mother, Nana Edith, had taught her the other things. 

They bought a box of the multicoloured fruit squares to share, and two caramels—maple syrup and tobacco flower, and golden apple kissed with lapsang tea. Later, in the safety of their own beds, in the in-between place just before dreamland, they would remember autumn sunsets and long-forgotten kisses by the bonfire. 

“It’s very peculiar,” Charlotte was saying, as the door drifted shut behind them. “Last month I remember eating one or two of these before bed, and I had the most extraordinary dreams.”

Nadia broke into the yawn she’d been stifling all day. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d properly slept through the night. She shook herself awake and went into the little storage room that served as her workshop. A cracked wooden kitchen island housed bowls, jars of light and dark sugars, and the harp cutter that dominated the cramped room. She’d been surprised to learn, years ago, that other candy makers called the stringed slicing apparatus a guitar, in English as well as the French guitare. But to Mamie Antoinette it had always been la harpe, the harp.

Nadia’s husband had never liked the obnoxiously awkward thing taking up space in their kitchen at home. When she had gotten pregnant she’d used it to cut up trays and trays of salmonberry pâtes de fruits with orange blossom and thyme, trying to elicit dreams of the daughter they’d soon be meeting. What would she be like? How would they spend their summers? She didn’t tell Michael what she was doing, or how she couldn’t understand why she dreamt only of darkness. 

She’d heard once that very, very few marriages managed to survive the loss of a child. By the time Michael left she was already too numb with loss to hear him go. One day there was simply a second hole beside the first, where her daughter and the love of her life should have been. 

All she had left were dreams. 

From the island she pulled out pots and bowls for the morning’s project: pâte de fruit of rosemary and juniper berry. It was the only thing in the shop that brought forth no dreams at all; rather, it welcomed a night filled only with gentle oblivion, sweet shadows that put aside the pain and memories until the light of morning. The recipe had come to her one night as she lay in bed, watching the moon wind its lazy way across the sky. 

The ground beneath her feet hummed. The front door rattled as another train pulled up to the platform, then stilled under the murmur of voices. Nadia mixed golden sugar into crushed juniper berries and stirred. The scent tangled itself in her hair. The train had moved on and the sounds of the station were still before she heard new footsteps in the shop. 

Sighing, she lifted the bubbling mixture off the heat and stepped out onto the floor, pulling the workshop door firmly closed behind her. Slick black loafers clipped against the old floorboards. The shoes met immaculately pressed trousers, then a blazer with broad shoulders that made the compact space look even smaller. He might have been the tallest man Nadia had ever seen. She tried to compare him to Michael in her mind and felt hollow all over again. 

“Welcome,” she said, brushing her hands on her apron. She had to tilt her head back to look up at him. “Can I be of assistance?”

The man turned, nearly too big for the room, and his shoulder caught the shelf against the wall. The stand with the rose and lemonbalm caramels shuddered, then leapt. Glass exploded on the wooden floor.

“Oh gosh, I’m terribly sorry.” The man knelt down and hit his head on the shelf. He muttered something slightly more colourful than gosh and put his hand to his head. “Sorry. Really.”

Nadia bit back a smile. Michael had sworn like a sailor. “Don’t worry. I’ll fetch the dustpan.” She maneuvered against the large man, rustling his blazer, and retrieved the small brush from behind the counter. The caramels had been on their way out, anyhow. She’d tried one earlier that day to see if it was getting too dry. 

“So what can I help you with?” she asked, as she swept up the glass shards and the caramels. Even in their wrappers, the ethereal scent of lemonbalm and rose reached for her, caressed her, whispered stories of forgiveness and peace and mornings full of promise. She brushed it impatiently away.

“I was looking for something to bring my daughter.” The man looked around at the glittering confections. “She’s been having bad dreams.”

Nadia looked up, startled. “Oh?” 

“Yeah. I thought a nice surprise would help her rest a little easier. You must know what children are like.”

She bit her lip. Not trusting herself to speak, she just shook her head.

She put the dustpan away and wandered over to the array of pâtes de fruits. A few of the last batch of juniper berry were left. Certainly they would help still the nightmares. Or perhaps loganberry and sea salt, for dreams of languid summer days by the sea. 

“How old is your daughter?” she heard herself asking. Hers and Michael’s would have been three now. Three last month. 

“She’s three,” the man replied. Nadia glanced over sharply. “And you?” he asked, “have you any children of your own?”

She hesitated, her fingers on the worn wood table. It wasn’t the first time someone had asked her that. Consider yourself lucky, a local woman had said, grinning at the gangly preteen she dragged along behind her. They both knew she didn’t mean it. 

“Almost.”

When she’d felt the sharp snap in her stomach and the wet between her legs, she thought she was going into labor. She looked around for Michael. Then she saw the blood. There was so much blood. 

“I see,” the man said. And he did, somehow. “What was her name?”

It didn’t occur to Nadia to wonder how he knew it was a her. It seemed as natural as her own understanding that it was a daughter that grew inside her.

“Anne,” she said. After Michael’s grandmother. Nadia liked it because it sounded like her own grandmother too, Antoinette. “She nearly made it. It was almost time, but she… I… wasn’t strong enough.”

The man stepped towards her. He smelled of Michael’s aftershave, and roses. Roses and lemonbalm. The tears in her eyes made the sharp lights blur. 

“Strength has nothing to do with it. It wasn’t her time yet. She knew it and just didn’t know how to tell you.”

“But I miss her,” Nadia whispered. Everything she could have been. Their family. The life they would never have. She wrapped her arms around herself and was surprised to see that her fingers were bloody. She looked at them curiously. They smelled like strawberries. Strawberry was Michael’s favourite. 

“Of course you do. She misses you too. And you’ll see her again one day, after you’ve lived a long, full life. But you’ve got to live it first. You need to collect all the stories you’re going to tell her.”

She squeezed her eyes closed, willing herself to stay standing. Tears escaped and rolled down her face. One sunk into her lips. It tasted of sugar-water. 

Nadia opened her eyes. The man wasn’t as tall as she’d thought, or maybe it was the shop that wasn’t so small. The corridor stretched out past the train tracks, over the river, out beyond the confines of North Yorkshire and towards Mamie Antoinette’s garden in Fontenay-aux-Roses. The confiserie was the entire world. 

The man brushed a tendril of hair out of her eyes, just as Michael had done so, so many times. Her heart broke all over again.

“It’s okay, Nadia,” Michael said. “It’s okay to start living.”

He might have said something else. She wasn’t sure. Whatever it was was lost in the rumble of the next train.

The light hurt her eyes. She had fallen asleep awkwardly at her work table, sitting on something that might have generously been called a bar stool or, less generously, a small coat rack. Something crinkled in her hand. It was an empty candy wrapper, still smelling of lemonbalm and rose. 

She came out to the front of the tiny shop, staggering on legs that hadn’t quite woken up all the way. The little glass stand piled with caramels still stood on the shelf, glittering invitingly. She decided she’d give the caramels a few more days. 

Nadia went to the front door and looked out. The air was cool and fresh. A train idled on the platform and commuters passed in and out. Some of them waved to her. 

Once the train pulled away, Nadia retrieved her keys and locked up the candy shop. Just beyond the hill the River Nidd sparkled. It was a lovely day for a walk.

Fija Callaghan is an Irish-Canadian writer who believes in embracing the magic of everyday moments. Her work has appeared in numerous venues including Bandit Fiction, Nightingale & Sparrow, The Caterpillar, Eucalyptus & Rose Magazine, Dodging the Rain Poetry Journal, Gingerbread House Literary Magazine, Steam Ticket, littledeathlit, Crow & Cross Keys, and Wyldblood Magazine.

photo by De an Sun (via unsplash)

Three Poems—Melody Wang

Victorian House

Several unforgiving encounters later,
an insistent hand on the small of my back edges 
me toward the solemn house of my nightmares   

Curiously drawn forth, I peer into the gloom
of a yellowed parlor cradling the last
remnants of the story they tried to silence – you 

descended the grinning stairway, succumbed
to the flames and that was the end. And yet – 
the wood remembers, as it always has.

A Turn of Events

Yesterday’s forgotten lament
saunters in with the storm, a
grand entrance assuming greatness

Laissez les bons temps rouler!
echoes faintly from vaulted ceilings
as Ms. Kane’s lilting voice cradles

 the ensemble’s wistful notes 
encapsulating the hope of an era
that taunts us a century later

A memory of stolen kisses
darting through elegant parlors,
we are the quiet witnesses

to innocence relinquished
while all around, the spirits of
old Hollywood ingénues still hide

themselves within the glamour of it all
having forgotten that they, too,
had once come to this place to fall apart

unwilling to give up the ghost
they cling to the ethereal realm
glide past unfazed, faceless

cradling their delicate-stemmed
glasses of dubonnet as
the waltz prevails

Safe as Houses

the fallen decade encased in a lurid foretelling
air heavy with the spicy aroma of old cigars, dust

an aberrant path strewn with incantations
haunted souls have yet to fully utter; the unknown  

permeates the quickening bloodstream
disrupting illusory pockets of complacency

only the unlucky few stumble upon the secret door
leading to worlds commemorating the lost, portals

beckoning then shutting on a moment’s whim
while in the ears that tinny familiar record plays on

Melody Wang (she/her) currently resides in sunny Southern California with her dear husband. In her free time, she dabbles in piano composition and also enjoys hiking, baking, and playing with her dogs. She is a reader for Sledgehammer Lit and tweets @MelodyOfMusings

photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen (via unsplash)

When my mother was a galaxy—Aimée Keeble

zygote: egg of heaven
milk-light and boil

to lay a nothing down in fertile silt
and line our crystal skins with god

a creature made of ruminants and Way
and the flesh is reiterated
and I carry her eyes
until

Aimée has her Master of Letters in Creative Writing from the University of Glasgow and is represented by Ayla Zuraw-Friedland at the David Black Agency. Aimée lives in North Carolina with her dog Cowboy and is working on her first novel. She is the grand-niece of Beat writer and poet Alexander Trocchi.

photo by Isi Parente (via unsplash)

Crater—Lucy Zhou

One morning, as Anna awakened from a moonless dream, she discovered a hole the size of a small child’s fist above her belly button. Crunching her stomach to get a closer look, she scrutinized the oblong cavity—about one-inch deep and freshly-pink like marbled ham. It was as if someone had picked up a tablespoon and swiped at the soft cream of her flesh, at the taut-skinned tissue and nerve fibers. A clean, decisive blow. As she probed the hole for any bumps or alien tenderness, she felt no pain, nothing but the warm, familiar hum of her body, rushing to meet her fingertips.

In the bathroom mirror, she surveyed her reflection—wide-eyed, a pink dash of a mouth, coffee-ground hair smeared wildly down her nape. As she turned off the faucet to splash water on her face, she could have sworn—if she closed her eyes and held her breath—that somewhere air thumped against a wire-mesh screen. A distant whistling, although the lone window in the bathroom remained shut. Undisturbed. Her eyes traveled south to the mirror’s edge—the shadow-indent below her small breasts—and then back up to her face. An oversized pore, she finally told herself as the cream-colored blouse swallowed up her torso—or the vestigial pockmark of a particularly deep-rooted pimple. Another hallmark of getting older that no one talks about, the slow uncoupling of your flesh from its velvet grip. She buttoned up her worries—for later.

That day, like any other, Anna commuted downtown to a high-rise flat that refracted the skyline’s grey and teal. There, on the top floor in the office closest to the yawning bay, she answered phones for a corporate lawyer named David, a man in his mid-fifties with the exuberance of a gangly teen. The day’s tasks consumed her—coffee filters to dispose of, various legal documents to photocopy and file, a steady stream of calls to field, and clients to smile for and appease. Burrowing herself in the requests and demands of others, she rode the circadian rhythm of the corporate organ, punctuated by David’s booming laugh—its familiar rituals making it easy to forget.

His bedroom door—first clumsily opened and then slammed shut—was hard and cold against her back. Clothing discarded like a trail of breadcrumbs crumpled at their feet. Anna closed her eyes, felt David’s hand moving inside her. A tug of desire pulled at her navel. His staccato breaths raining hail down her neck. Then his fingers withdrew, now slippery with her want. Turn around, he ordered. And Anna obeyed. As David furiously worked behind her, Anna thought back to the unspoken tension in the air during those first few weeks—like something you had to tease out, an ingrown hair, a pomegranate seed. Green-footed, unsure Anna, still new to her responsibilities and grateful for the health insurance, who observed the fit of David’s blue oxford shirt around his forearms, the sharp jut of his chin, the laugh lines around his eyes as light as a graphite drawing.

So when David propositioned her two months into the job, with that open, boyish smile of his, and assured her that his wife had previously agreed to this arrangement, Anna was surprised that her body had intuited what her mind could not—had dismissed as one-sided. Impossible. Although she would never admit it to anyone, a feeling of childish gratitude flooded her. That someone like him—attractive, successful, and self-possessed because of it, with a tongue that could shape words out of clay and acquit war criminals—would notice someone like her. A man whom she could never love.

The wet tarp sound of flesh on flesh echoed through the hallway. On the opposite wall hung a large portrait of David and a woman with warm, intelligent eyes and a shock of auburn hair. Her red mouth coiled into a squashed half-moon. His wife.

Their cheeks still damp from a tropical storm, Anna and David rose to get dressed. What’s this? He hooked a finger inside the hole. Careless. Anna quickly turned away and pulled down her blouse. It’s nothing. In the car ride back, David went on about his upcoming cases, the palm of his hand uncomfortably hot against her left thigh. But all Anna could think about was the shiver of pleasure that had captured and then released her like a wet sock. Later, when she got home and took off her clothes for a bath, she noticed that the hole had widened by a finger’s width.

Anna redownloaded a popular dating app. She figured enough time had passed since her last heartbreak two years ago when she caught her fiancé—her first love—in bed with another woman. The day had unfolded like a bad rom-com—her keys splattering onto the floor; their bare-slicked bodies cracked open like fleshy oysters, the sheets splayed around them in a makeshift altar; her spittle-filled scream to get out, get the fuck out; an overturned flowerpot, a keyed car, a returned engagement ring. Carved underneath her breastbone was the memory of that day—a weathered score on a tree trunk, scabbed over with silt and leaves. Before a warbly love song playing in a coffee shop would lash it open, or an artifact surfacing from the burial ground of their shared history—like when the washer spat out from its bowels her ex’s bright-yellow sock, left behind years ago in the haste of packing. Now, with the damp sock in her hand, she felt nothing but a hollow detachment—her sorrow finally bleaching into petrified wood, the clack-clack of dead branches scraping against an old worn-down house, her body.

Her first date stood her up at a tiki bar. Her second date was a graduate student in philosophy who spent an hour pontificating about authors Anna had never heard of and would never read. Her third date was a phlebotomist named Cat with spiky hair and a mouth that showed all her teeth when she laughed. Anna immediately liked her, and after a night of dancing under swathes of purple and blue light, they found themselves in front of Anna’s apartment. Hands running over silver clasps, untying hair.

In the dark against moonlit sheets, Cat gently took off Anna’s dress and drew a line from her chin down to her belly button. What’s this? Cat asked when her finger dipped inside the hole’s basin. But before Anna could turn away, Cat leaned down and pressed her ear against the hollow curve.

What the fuck are you doing? Anna pushed Cat away and quickly wrapped herself up in a blanket.

I’m sorry, I was just trying to help—

Get out.

Are you serious?

Cat left Anna alone in the slanted moonlight. Once the gunpowder of Anna’s fury burned itself out, a deep-gulfed shame crashed in and carried out to sea a soughing of batwings, a whistling.

The squelch of time was slow, Anna knew that. But the following days were unbearable—as if plunged underwater, and she gulped a lungful. Two weeks later, Anna climbed back into David’s silver Lexus after work. And they drove, like they had many times before, toward his house across the darkening bay. The air pulsed with the first autumnal chill. Branches raked an orange-crisp sky, preparing to drop their leaves. A few intimate sessions later, Anna realized he had stopped taking off her shirt. His eyes stared straight ahead as if still concentrating on a legal brief. Another stale ritual. A business formality.

Home alone, she started getting dressed in the closet—careful to avoid brushing against her torso—and showering in the dark, the beads of rainfall collecting on cave walls and sliding down her hips. The whistling licked at her eardrums at all hours of the day—and at work, to drown it out, she picked up the receiver and listened to the dial tone. At night, it gathered speed, rattling the small bones of her ribcage like wind chimes. She slept under a garbage bag of the first things she saw and grabbed—metal pots and pans, a stack of unread books, a vibrator, dirty laundry, and a velvet throw pillow—as if the combined weight of her life in these assorted fragments could press her into herself, flattening the hole into a dried daisy on parchment paper, and remind herself that she was still here.

Finally, one-midafternoon at work, the elevator dinged, and a woman with auburn hair stepped out. She headed for Anna, eating lunch quietly at her desk. Before Anna could even look up and whisper hello, David’s wife, her eyes full of shards, screamed and pushed Anna to the ground.

You little bitch! How could you do this to me?

Anna hurried to the bathroom and locked the door. But the wife’s ragged sobs still echoed through her ear canal. She felt a pang underneath her breastbone, the score on the tree trunk dribbling milky sap, tearing shrapnel. To her horror, Anna realized that the mangled wailing was rippling from her own mouth. The sound of a cornered animal.

She yanked off her blouse and gaped at the hole, now a gash-filled crater eating away at her midsection. Running her hand along the seafloor of her flesh, she stumbled upon an orifice the size of a quarter—a hole within a hole, thrumming with the energy of a wound-up clock—and stuck her thumb clean through. Her thumbnail protruding from her back—exposed to the sour bathroom air. 

The hole within a hole gripped her thumb before pulling her in up to her elbow. A second mouth.

Hunched over and panicking, Anna dialed Cat’s number for the first time since they argued that night. Strands of hair started to lift above her head like a ghostly crown, the whistling turning into a howl.

Cat, please, I think I get it now, I’m sor—But before Anna could finish, the hole ripped open with the sound of a toothpick snapping, and she was sucked in.

Lucy Zhou is a technical writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Barren Magazine, Rejection Letters, and X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine. In 2020, she received an honorable mention for the Felicia Farr Lemmon Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets. You can find her on Twitter @lrenazhou. 

photo by Pars Sahin (via unsplash)

In Which I Learn The Names Of Death—Oluwatomiwa Ajeigbe

In my native tongue, we spell death with three letters, 
two syllables & an expulsion of breath. 
My grandmother says the afterlife is endless—
a world in which we walk but never reach our destination
or maybe there is no destination. Maybe
life is part of the journey & dying is another step
on this road to nowhere. In my dreams, I re-magine heaven 
not as a place, but a person. But heaven is not the destination—remember, 
there is no destination—it is just another stop on this endless road. 
A fortnight ago, a faceless elder told me tales of my ancestors;
of Kujore, who learned all the names of death & used them 
to bind death so he would live forever. Of Bakure, who befriended death
& tricked him until he learned seven of his names & then used the names
to resurrect his dead wife. Of Kuti, who lost his life on a thousand battlefields
but always rose again—he had the names of death tattooed on his dark skin. 
I looked at the faceless elder & said, Will you teach me your names?  Death trembled,
scrambled to his feet, asked me how I knew. I said: Only three types of people are faceless—
the dead, those who know the names of death & Death himself. He was quiet for a moment
then he nodded and said; I am he. For a thousand nights & one day, Death taught me
all of his names & when we were done, he asked: what shall you do with 
these names you have learnt? I looked up at him, smiled
& murmured a killing curse. Only one who knows the names of death
can kill death—for what is a name if not a way to be called back home?

Oluwatomiwa Ajeigbe (he/him) is a writer, poet and mathematician. He has works published or forthcoming from Dust Poetry Magazine, Eyes To The Telescope, Star*Line Magazine, FANTASY Magazine, Kalahari Review and elsewhere. He tweets @OluwaSigma and writes from Lagos, Nigeria. 

photo by Jakub Gorajek (via unsplash)

Ditches—Kelli Lage

content warning: references car accident

ditches so deep / they serve as graves / pavement laid / proudly by your father / or perhaps grandfather / now tarnished by the glass / that cracks like ice / everyday behind my eyelids / sixty miles per hour / how fast can a lifetime go? / the sun looked away / and clouds stretched their necks / I didn’t see my elementary school carnival / my grandma’s kitchen table / or his face  / all that rang through the air / a curse from my lips / I braced for the unknown / the sea waves / loose and wild / took hold of my ship / then / I flipped / all that plagued my shell / that I didn’t hope to leave / was how to slither away / from death’s metal trap / then I landed right side up / I shook with the force of / thousands of fiery bees / no scars / no snapped bones / I walked to my refuges / only a day of aches / but four years later / I know what steep hollows hold / I know the lives buried in ditches

Kelli Lage lives in the Midwest countryside with her husband, and dog, Cedar. Lage is currently earning her degree in Secondary English Education. Lage states she is here to give readers words that resonate.

photo by 412designs (via pixabay) and Marek Piwnicki (via unsplash)

Weather the Storm—Callie S. Blackstone

content warning: death of a child (off-page)

Rain pounded down and plastered my hair to the back of my neck. My cable knit sweater grew heavy. The flannel I wore underneath it was slowly growing damp. I banged my fist on the door again. I paused and banged on the door again. I would make noise all night until someone answered. 

The rain blurred the porch light. I couldn’t see much of the house, but I knew it well enough. I had passed by many times. I would continue to do so, even after that night.  Each swing of my arm flung more water back onto my face. I almost lifted a foot to the door but the action was interrupted when she finally answered.

I pushed my way past her, perhaps shoving my shoulder against her more than I needed to. She jumped back at the contact, acting as if my body was cursed, as if I was some vessel of despair. 

In a way, she was right. 

I was wet, I was cold. The endeavor had not even started and I was already exhausted. I sat down in one of the kitchen chairs. My presence was accompanied by the slow dripping of water. Puddles began to gather at my feet.

“Tea,” I murmured.  It was likely the first time she hesitated to fulfill a request for a cuppa. “Tea,” I repeated. “I take it with lots of milk and sugar. Thank you.” 

Her brow furrowed for a moment. Then she moved to the kettle. Her shoulders relaxed slightly when she finally began working on the familiar task: filling the electric kettle with water, covering the tea bag until fragrant steam clouded her face, removing the bag and adding milk before the thing could get too bitter. She added the sugar last, so much that it bordered on saccharine. She placed the mug in front of me.

I held it in my hands and let the warmth slowly travel up my arms. I sipped the piping liquid. The heat unfurled in my chest.

“Sarah,” I took several sips and savored the warmth. My body slowly reanimated. “We both know I am here for Sarah. It’s time.” 

Maggie stared into the table as if I had not said anything. This is how they were sometimes. They were like the living dead, as if they wanted to join their loved one on the other side. As if life itself could not carry on when the one they cherished died. 

I had cut out the obituary neatly prior to my visit. The paper was flimsy and delicate. I placed it gently on the table in front of Maggie. I peeled off my sweater prior to moving forward. Maggie instinctually took it from me and held it close to her face. She ran her hands over every knitted row. She ran the garment across her cheek, her eyes closed to the roughness. I imagined Sarah in such a sweater. All the girls in our village had one.

Maggie took her time with the thing before she draped it over the back of a chair, which she pushed close to the roaring fireplace. It was the only thing that Maggie kept going after she received the news. She never allowed the fire to die.

Maggie returned to her chair at the table and I took my place next to her. I looped my arm around her, held it there. I was her preacher, I was her witness, I was the one true love she had never met, I was the grandchild she would never have. I was always whatever they needed me to be. 

Maggie shifted her shoulders towards me. This was my cue. I gently took her hand and placed it on a corner of the obituary. Maggie’s eyes seemed to flicker toward the paper for a moment, but that may have been the light of the fire. I turned my eyes to the paper. 

Sarah Ana Greshem born March 3, 1990, passed away on April 2, 2000. Sarah is survived by her mother, Maggie Greshem, and her cat Mickey. Sarah was a shy, sweet girl who enjoyed spending time outdoors. 

I continued to read the paper. The young girl’s funeral occurred the day before. Maggie’s body stiffened when I read the date and time aloud. She slowly lowered her head onto my shoulder. Her eyes began to fill with tears. The drops fell down her face and into the palms that sat open on her lap. The obituary had done its job. It helped her fully acknowledge the event, even if she could not speak about it out loud. 

The room was quiet save for the soft sound of tears falling on flesh, water falling from my sweater, and the hungry burn of fire. We sat together, the flames playing across our pale skin. My flannel was slowly losing its dampness, although it remained wet on my shoulder where she rested her head. That was ok. It would do.

After a long moment of silence, she spoke. “The wine. The cookies.” 

She began to stand up and I followed suit. She looked at me with confusion but I could not leave her alone in these moments, this close to death and ready to leave. Part of my role was being a safe keeper. I was only here to help those to the other side who had been called. It was not Maggie’s time.

She opened a door by the fireplace and flicked on a switch. The basement lit up with the dimness of a single naked bulb. She met my eyes and I nodded. It was time. We descended the rickety staircase together. I followed her through the basement, past shelves of home-canned fruits and holiday decorations. I  noticed that she had gained speed and her gait was now steady. She was better when she had a task to complete.

She led me straight to a chest in the back corner of the room, a dark place the light did not fully reach. Her hands ran against the wood in the dark, seeking the latch, which she had to ease open. The metal creaked loudly and violently. 

She propped the lid of the chest back against the wall. She murmured the traditional prayer as her eyes focused on the contents. I sensed her passion, the pleading nature of her words, from several feet away. She loved Sarah as any mother loves a child, diligently and blindly and with everything in her body. Maggie began to sob but she carried on, repeating the words over and over until her gut told her to stop. 

She took the black, lacy cloth that hung on a nearby hook and used it to pick up the first item in the chest. She presented it to me, a red that had been bottled in the year of Sarah’s birth. I nodded my head to indicate that it would do. 

I followed her back up the stairs as she cradled the wine. She took every step slowly, carefully, as if she was cradling her newborn and feared dropping it. She had one remaining task as Sarah’s mother and she was intent on carrying it out to the best of her ability. First, the wine. Then, the cookies. 

She placed the wine on the kitchen table before turning to the counter. I took in the row of baking ingredient—the new sacks of flour and sugar, the butter left out to soften. Maggie had been adrift after the loss, but she had still been able to purchase the necessary ingredients. She met my eyes briefly, before looking at the ground and taking several steps towards the counter. She took out a stepping stool and placed it in front of a cabinet, reaching for a series of bowls and measuring cups towards the back. While others were more accessible, these were the special tools she had purchased ten years ago, when her child was born, should she ever have to perform this task.

We got to work. I measured out everything and Maggie stirred and prayed, stirred and prayed. Her energy began to flow into the dough, an infusion of everlasting motherly love and sorrow. This was the last meal she would ever make for her daughter. She began to weep into the dough, but that is why the recipe called for unsalted butter. Something extra always found its way in. Once the ball had formed she rolled it out and cut out the crescent shaped cookies, placed them on the tray, and slid them into the hot oven. The almondy perfume filled the kitchen and intermingled with the smell of burning wood. 

When I encountered Maggie Greshem at the farmer’s market or the library after that night, she would avert her eyes and shift her body away from me. She would not acknowledge me again—her house would be empty, save for herself and the roaring fire which she would never let die down. She would have no need for me. There were no loved ones left to die.

She had to take the next steps of the journey on her own. I would finish the mission as I always did, alone. 

I walked down to the graveyard so there was enough time to get there for sunset. I counted my steps, I greeted the trees and their inhabitants. It was a familiar route and a familiar dance. 

When I arrived, I paused at the open iron gate. The graveyard was generally closed at sunset but tonight it would remain open. Only one person would be entering tonight. When I was done, three would be leaving. I paused at the gate and recited my prayers, explaining my mission and asking permission to enter. The place seemed to grow quiet and my soul settled into my body. All things became still. A gentle breeze picked up and rifled through my hair, pushing the gate open further. It was my sign. I crossed over the threshold.

The recognizable round face hung in the booth. Alden tipped his head so steeply that it felt like a bow. We both knew that is what it was. I always felt so beautiful in the graveyard under the mild moonlight, the breeze, and Alden’s gaze. Even when he stepped out of the booth and his diminutive figure was revealed, even when his clothes looked a little ragged up close. He extended an arm to me to lead me to the grave. Always the gentleman. 

I reviewed the scene. The headstone shone in the bright moonlight. A realistic cat was engraved next to her name. Mickey, I thought. The breeze picked up again. Sarah was restless in her grave and her spirit stirred. 

Mickey is ok, I thought. I pictured Maggie’s warm kitchen and thought of the black cat that watched us while we spoke that rainy night, that curled around Maggie’s feet while she faced the obituary and her daughter’s death. Mickey is taking care of your mom. The wind whipped up when Maggie was mentioned, carrying dead leaves and acorns. The objects pelted my arms. I pulled my wool coat tighter around me, hoping to take away some of the sting. 

“Sarah,” I whispered. “Do you know who I am? Why I am here?” The wind began to escalate, a flurry of leaves and sticks began to fly around. 

The young were often confused, afraid, enraged. They had pictured so much life in front of them. Sarah’s visions flooded my mind. She had dreamed of learning to sail, of spending her summers on the water. She had dreamed of traveling, of seeing America and China. She had begun to dream of how a boy’s lips may taste. All of it, stolen from her! The wind howled and I felt hard drops of rain starting to hit my head. I started to get a little grumpy myself. If this case had taught me anything, it was that I really needed to buy a raincoat.

Movement out of the corner of my eye made me turn. Alden was shining a light out into the dark in the agreed upon pattern that our families had used for centuries. He wanted to ensure that I was alright, that I could weather the storm. And I could. So I pulled the dense metal flashlight from my own pocket and signaled back. He quieted down. 

“Sarah, you’re scaring Alden, that poor old man. We both know that isn’t like you.” The wind and rain didn’t stop, but they didn’t increase, either. I was pretty sure I was getting hit with feweracorns and sticks, too. 

“Thank you, Sarah. I can take it, but sometimes I’m afraid Alden can’t.” Although we had both been bred and raised for our role in this production, Alden was getting older. But then I thought of what happened with the Enfield case and knew if he could handle that, he could handle this little girl. Or anything, really. Despite his reassuring presence and the fact we had both walked away from that case alive, I began to shiver. It was cold, I was getting wet yet again, and I was remembering the fact that pure evil can live long after human flesh has died. 

After several moments, the weather really had started to calm down. Sarah was always a kind girl at heart. Afraid, yes. Unkind, no.

“Sarah, I know I’m a little older than you, so I didn’t know you well. Your mother told me that all of your loved ones were at the services—even the neighbor girls you played with. The twins.” I had learned not to use the word funeral, at least not with spirits like this—spirits who were not at peace with their death, spirits who were not ready to move on. They were still upset and knew what I was talking about, but the language seemed softer. Gentler. It was easier to swallow.

“It sounded like everyone had such kind things to say.” And it was true. After the girl died there had been no whispers or murmurs, no clues unearthed that proved a bad temperament. She was considered to be a shy but well-behaved girl. The breeze lifted some leaves off the ground, gently moved them in a circle. 

“I remember seeing you in the park often. You seemed to love playing outside, no matter the weather. I’m sure if I was younger, I would have loved to join you. We were pretty similar, you and I—loners. But sometimes you need a friend. That’s why I’m here now.” 

“Sarah, do you know why I am here? Did your mother ever explain my purpose to you? Did she ever talk about my family, the Reeds?” The answering silence seemed to answer with its own questions. “I’m sure she didn’t explain that nice gentleman’s family, either—the Drydens.” There was no response. 

I shook my head slightly. Maggie had protected her daughter, who had already lived through so much—a father leaving his family with no explanation, no goodbye. In other parts of the world, “the talk” consisted of sex education. In our part of the world, “the talk” consisted of death education. Or, death how it worked here—how it works in small villages in England, a place that had not loosened its grip on all of the old ways.

Sarah did not seem to like these topics because the wind picked up again and sticks began to pelt gravestones around me. 

“Now, Sarah, that is just rude. You were raised better than that.” The wind died down. “You can think of me as your friend, as your big sister. I will explain everything to you now.”

I explained that the Reeds and the Drydens were two of the founding families of our village. We had been here for hundreds of years, and we would be here for hundreds more. Some family members had the luxury of choice. Some were able to leave whenever they wanted. Then there were those of us—the first born of either lineage—who could not. We stayed in the village, in the role, whether we wanted to or not. There were first-borns from either line that tried to leave, but they were always stopped, one way or another. I had always embraced my role, as did Alden—or so it seemed. We did not discuss the work at length. There were no after-work drinks for us. There were no midnight rendezvouses in graveyards. There were waves and smiles if we bumped into each other, as we gave anyone else in the village. That was it. 

I moved on. The next part of the presentation generally consisted of an explanation of my role and how it was conducted. But the fresh dead were still people. They were often intensely emotional people at that. Even those that were familiar with my role often stopped to ask questions, complain, beg for an exemption. It was difficult for many to understand that despite my seeming powerful, I truly did not have much capacity. I was just an actor in a natural cycle that had gone on for centuries and would go on long after my body decayed in its own grave plot. 

They seemed to think I had a choice in the matter, that I did not have to carry out my tasks. There were stories that have gone down through my family and the village at large. Stories of those who refused the task for whatever reason. Stories of what happened to them and the dead after the fact. These were stories no one wanted to hear, let alone star in. These stories scared even me, someone who commingled with the dead.

My comments about rudeness ultimately quieted Sarah, but there was a lingering  silence that seemed to act as inquiry. The dead were still unique and each had their own questions. She came to understand my role quickly without doubting it. She seemed to understand that her time to cross over was coming. Instead of bemoaning her inability to visit Boston or Shenzhen, she merely wanted to know what was next. 

I asked Sarah if she had sensed Alden leading me to her grave and a breeze shook autumn leaves down into my hair. I interpreted this as an affirmation. I explained that my role was similar to Alden’s; my role was to walk Sarah to the next place. That it was like walking someone to the porch of a darkened house. I could not see past the curtained windows and was not permitted entrance. I was merely a guide on a small part of her journey. 

Rain began falling again. It was heavier this time. It began to collect on my eyelashes and the night blurred. My body grew more and more tense and I tried flexing my muscles. I was still antsy with Sarah’s anxiety and felt myself doing a small dance on her grave, fidgeting, shaking out my limbs.

“Sarah, as your friend, I’m going to be honest with you. I don’t know what comes next. But part of my role is taking some of the bad things from you and carrying them so you don’t have to. Sarah, my people are called sin eaters. Now don’t freak out, I know it sounds weird. And if it’s your first time hearing about it, it is. Your mom made you one last batch of cookies and left out a bottle of wine for you. You aren’t really meant to eat the cookies, and I know for sure she did not let you taste the wine, so you won’t be drinking it, either.” I paused. “I’m sorry you could not taste wine in this life, that you could not experience the sensation of a boy’s lips.” 

My own lover flashed in my mind briefly and some of the tension drained from my body. “Cute, huh?” 

It seemed Sarah agreed that the man’s dark brown eyes were quite entrancing.

“Your mom did everything right. She made every cookie with her love. She walked down to the graveyard and placed them on the freshly turned earth so they could sit under the moon for a night. They soaked up the moon and they soaked up you. All of the wrongs you have done in this life—no matter what they are—all that has caused you shame or embarrassment, is in the cookies now.” My body grew tense again and I cracked each knuckle individually, despite my doctor’s warnings. 

“Now Sarah, you are a sweet, young girl. And I have done this for longer than you could imagine. I was even younger than you when I first started…” I trailed off, caught in the memory of guiding over a farmer who had been kicked in the head by his cow. My first time. 

“I do not know your secrets now, but I will when I eat. I am sure I have seen far worse in my brief career—murder and other unspeakable things—than what these cookies contain. Think of me as your big sister, listening to your secrets and taking your burdens for you. Then we will walk to the other side, and you will feel lighter than you ever have—lighter than playing on the swings, lighter than running in the summer sun.” 

I sat down in the soil, which was slowly turning to mud with the rain of her tears. I didn’t care, I was used to my wardrobe being encrusted with graveyard dirt, and I was getting used to being perpetually damp.

 How my lover could stand it, I didn’t know. I let my last thoughts of him linger, how his rough lips felt against mine, how he smelled of pine and his own type of earth. I wanted Sarah to experience it before she went. She was so young, and I would come to find she carried so little shame. She had done such little living. 

I closed my eyes and placed my hands in the soil of the young girl’s grave. Sarah’s presence grew stronger. I never saw the spirits beyond briefly glimpsing their memories. But I could sense them in other ways. Some spoke through the weather, like Sarah had. Some spoke through animals. Alden had even been used once or twice. Some used my body, causing pain or tension to express themselves as if I was some physical instrument. Whatever it was, it always got stronger as I grounded myself in the grass above their tomb.

I allowed my breathing to come long and slow until the feeling of leaves and dirt faded; until the heaviness of wet denim was no longer present. My human sounds died down, my soul settled in the bowl of my hips. I asked the universe for its guidance, for strength, for patience, for grace, as I always did. The things I would need to succeed. I sensed Sarah’s spirit rising from the grave, pushing through the earth, and hanging around the stone. If I was allowed to talk to Maggie again, I would have reassured her that her daughter loved the image of Mickey on the stone. But the woman would never want to see me again. 

“It is time, Sarah.” 

I opened the royal blue tin to find the cookies packed in loving rows. The powdered sugar became damp with the rain. Wet cookies were not pleasant but they were something I had come to endure. My job was a soggy mess. I pulled the wine opener out of my pocket and removed the cork from the bottle. It would be left on the grave as a final offering, a sign of completion. 

I placed the first cookie on my tongue and was hit with the sweetness of sugar. The flavor was something I associated so strongly with my job that I no longer enjoyed sweets of any kind. Sweets were for the dead. The cookie disintegrated in my mouth. The almond flavor was cloying.

The images began as soon as the cookie hit my tongue. I saw many things. Childish things, childish sins. I could have laughed at Sarah’s innocence if it would not have been disrespectful. I saw a 6-year-old Sarah stealing a fistful of chocolate cake; she would blame it on the family dog. Once, when her mother told her she could not have a chocolate bar, the child decided to steal it. I smiled and acknowledged that she loved desserts. The sugar burned brighter on my tongue. I took a swig of the red, a nice merlot. I held it in my mouth although it too had become something I disliked, something I associated with death. I wanted Sarah to partake in this, if only once. My body began to shiver, and my throat began to close in an attempt to evacuate the liquid.  I quickly swallowed and laughed, wiping drops away on the back of my hand. I hadn’t liked it either when I first drank it, a gulp I swiped at a party long before I set foot in the graveyard. She wouldn’t have the chance to acquire the taste.

Another cookie. More memories. A boy that constantly made fun of her, that pinched her, that snapped the straps of her training bra. A boy who cornered her when they were alone, who made himself big and scary. He was big and scary until Sarah pulled back and slapped him. As I swallowed I let Sarah know that the act was ok, it was just self-defense. That she didn’t need to feel guilty, she hadn’t wanted to hurt anyone. With each bite I took, Sarah’s soul became lighter. The cookies had soaked up all of her pain and shame. I was here to consume it before she left. It only took three cookies. Most took a dozen. I had met those who required more, who I had to sit with for days and days to cleanse.

Sarah had a good moral compass. Her life was short and she had not yet felt the intensity of love or wine or any of the strong things that make us lose it. Her ritual was short. When I swallowed the last crumb with more wine—I let it flow down the back of my throat so neither of us would have to taste it, as she preferred—she struggled to stay by her gravestone. I sensed that her spirit was now hanging several feet above me.

She was the one dancing now. Free of pain, free of sadness. 

Let’s go, let’s go! She cried with the energy of a young child who wanted to explore the world. She was free of the fear that had been holding her back. 

I asked the universe once again for guidance on our journey. I reverently placed the remainder of the cookies on the base of her headstone. They would be gone by morning. The earth soaked up the remainder of the wine as I slowly poured it out. I gently placed the container and bottle in my bag, ready to be disposed of once the work was done.

“Ok, ok,” I responded to the antsy dead girl. “Let’s go.”

Callie S. Blackstone writes both poetry and prose. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Plainsongs, Lily Poetry Review, Prime Number Magazine, and others. Callie is lucky enough to wake up to the smell of saltwater and the call of seagulls everyday. You can find her online home at callieblackstone.wordpress.com.

photo by Scott Rodgerson and Daniel van den Berg (via unsplash)

3am—Alexandra Grunberg

I am waiting for happy moments
to come crawling out of graves

like loved ones dripping with
pearls of human teeth, the kind of

shock that wakes you up
from just another nightmare

I breathe in the hours of night
that has already turned to morning

searching for daylight on a
horizon that is still sleeping

but the zombie apocalypse must be
coming, I learned in each

fairy tale and Hollywood movie
that everything you have lost

is only waiting in the earth
and hope will splinter solid rock

with broken fingernails
and a mouthful of dirt

Alexandra Grunberg is a Glasgow based poet, author, and screenwriter. Her poetry has appeared in Disquiet Arts, The Raven Review, and Southchild Lit. She enjoys obsessing over fictional supernatural villains, hillwalking to isolated locations, and towns that are more character than setting.

photo by Jr Korpa (via unsplash)