The Last Birthday—Ryan J.M. Tan

The last man on Earth sits on a pew in a ruined church. His silhouette cast by a flickering flashlight. He is gaunt, malnourished, wrapped in rags. His face is permanently darkened by soot; wrinkles on that face add years to his true age. Any colour on him has been robbed by dust, any expression ground down by reality.

Suddenly, he stands. His posture is hunched. He hobbles forward, rucksack in hand while humming a familiar tune. It is Happy Birthday.

He approaches the broken altar and wipes dust off its surface. He drops his rucksack and rummages within, pulling out a bottle, lighter, and photograph. His shuffling is the only sound in the church.

He looks at the photograph. It is of himself with a woman and child. Their faces are smudged, as though he has spent every waking day stroking their faces until the ink rubbed off. A hundred times. A thousand. His grim face, for a moment, betrays a smile. 

He unscrews the bottle and bathes himself in its liquid. A baptism in oil. He ignites the lighter and sets himself aflame, raising both arms as though he were on a cross. 

A burning phoenix crucified. 

A dead city. A bleak sky. Ash falls from above like a winter’s snow that powders the ground like white cloth draped on a corpse. Clusters of dilapidated buildings and rusted vehicles litter the streets while dust mummifies the city, once alive, now tomblike. Silence is all that stirs here.

Above, stars twinkle in the black sky. Each, a glimmer of warmth within infinite dark, beacons of hope that, somewhere beyond, there may yet be life. They had never shone so brightly until the final days. It is as if the death of the world kindles their flames. 

But the stars twinkle uncaring, as silent as the divine, eyes innumerable watching the last man burn below.

In the far distance, a flickering light like a faint candle can be seen, its smoke dissolving quietly into the grey twilight. 

Faraway screams. The only sound that travels through the concrete valley. The final vesper of a dead world. 

Ryan is a Malaysian writer residing in Kuala Lumpur. He studied law but chose not to go down that path. During his free time, you can find him watching horror films (with eyes shut), playing the piano (to an audience of one beagle), and baking (usually edible) bread.

photo by v2osk (via unsplash)

When Death Came to the Village—Tina Jackson

Death came to the village on the edge of the forest.

They came just before the spring, tiptoeing through the mulch on the forest floor, creeping softly along the paths that led to the houses. They came silently, a breath of frost-tinged air wafting in the spaces between conversations, but they were no less deadly because their approach was gentle. One by one the villagers found themselves short of breath, then gasping for air, then drowning, and as the churchyard began to overflow with coffins, the branches in the forest pointed their bare twigs towards the sky, accusing Death. 

‘Why did you come for our village?’ whispered the trees to the sad air. ‘Why could you not leave us in peace?’

The trees did not expect an answer. They were crying out to the air because they were in mourning. But it so happened that Death was resting from their labours, and overheard the forest’s laments. 

‘It is not our fault,’ whispered Death in their many voices. Death is legion, and comes in many forms, and each has its own tongue. ‘We do not ask why when we are sent. We just go, and we do our job.’

‘But it is a terrible job,’ said the trees, thinking of the villagers who no longer went courting in the forest, or sat under the trees for shelter, or rest.  ‘Look at the grief you have left behind you. Why do you not find another?’

‘It is our job,’ replied Death. ‘We have no other. We are here now, and we must do what we are sent to do.’

And because the trees were old, and wise, and stood quietly and noticed things, they listened to what Death said. 

‘Why do you carry out this terrible work?’ They asked. Their long years had taught them well that it only takes a tiny chink in the foliage to let the light fall in.

‘We do not know,’ said Death, sadly. ‘We only know that we should come here and take our toll. But we cannot stand here talking. We are weary, and hungry from our terrible labours, and still there is work to be done.’

And then Death sighed a deep sigh. 

‘That is not to say we like it,’ said Death, sorrowfully. ‘We are rarely welcomed and each house we leave to the sounds of tears and heartbreak. You cannot know what it is like never to hear songs that are not funeral dirges, and never to eat dishes that are not funeral foods.’ 

With that, Death picked up their scythe, and made their way with heavy footsteps back to the village.

But the forest had listened. In the tops of the trees the twigs began, very faintly, to rustle, even though there was no wind. Birds began to stir, and in the undergrowth, there were sounds of small, brown creatures on the move.

The forest was gathering its forces. 

The forest had a plan.

Tincuta was a bright, light spirit with the face of a flower and a singing voice like a blackbird. Her voice was cracked and clear and told of the joys and sorrows of everyday life. 

She lived in a pretty red hut in a clearing full of flowers, where everything was clean and neat, and even the toothbrushes were arranged to look beautiful, as well as useful.

The forest sent a small brown nightingale to Tincuta. It sat on her windowsill and waited for her to come back from her vegetable patch.  The nightingale heard Tincuta before she saw her, and despite all the sorrow in the village, the little bird’s heart lifted, because Tincuta was singing.

The nightingale raised her beautiful voice in song, and Tincuta matched it. The woman and the bird sang together and when the verses were over, the nightingale settled on Tincuta’s shoulder.

‘Have you come with a message for me, little bird?’ the woman asked.

The nightingale nodded.

‘I have been sent by the forest. Your help is needed to send Death on their way.’

‘How can I do that?’ asked Tincuta. ‘I am as scared of Death as any of the villagers. That is why I stay in my clearing and keep my own company. What can I offer that will make Death leave us in peace?’

‘Death is sad,’ replied the nightingale. ‘Death never hears joyful song.’

Tincuta stroked the nightingale’s head before she spoke.

‘If it will help send Death on their way, I will sing my heart out,’ she said. ‘Will that do?’

The nightingale chirped, and fluttered her tail.

  ‘I’ll go and tell the forest,’ said the nightingale. And then she flew away.

Tincuta’s mother, Tinka, had a bush in her garden where cooking pots grew. The branches were filled with pots and pans for all kinds of dishes, their bright, flowered enamel gleaming with cleanliness and making passersby’s mouths water at the thought of a meal that would feed their heart as well as their stomach. If a visitor asked nicely, and perhaps pressed some coins into her hands, the pan would cook a delicious dish that sustained and comforted. But if anyone passed by with the intention of purloining a pan without offering something in return, the stolen pan would boil over no matter what the cooking temperature, and the base would blacken and the enamel would burn and the food inside would be nothing but inedible crusts of blackened cinder.

Tinka’s hut was smaller than her daughter Tincuta’s, and partly hidden in the trees. Its walls were lower and its windows were smaller and Tinka fought a constant battle to stop the forest coming into the house and taking root in her small, pokey room. There was only the one, so she cooked on a fire outside and did her business amongst the trees some distance away. When she sang songs, it was to herself or to the ducks she kept, and passersby sometimes wondered aloud that Tinka’s ducks quacked at times when most other ducks were asleep with their heads under their wings.

When she came home from gathering roots and herbs in the forest, the ducks were nowhere to be seen and there was a small brown vixen sitting on her doorstep next to a brightly flowered cooking pot.

‘Why is my best pot on the doorstep?’ said Tinka in a cross voice.

‘Because you’re the best cook,’ said the vixen. ‘Everybody knows that.’

‘I hope you haven’t come for my ducks,’ said Tinka. She scowled at her visitor but the vixen held her ground.

‘I promise I’m not going to touch your ducks. I’ve come from the forest,’ she told Tinka. ‘To ask your help in sending Death on their way. Death is sad, and only eats food that is cooked on the ashes of sorrow.’

Tinka rolled up her sleeves. 

‘You’ve come to the right place,’ she said. 

So the vixen told Tinka what she needed to do. 

‘And serve it in that pot,’ said the vixen. ‘It’s for a most special occasion.’ 

Brush in the air, the vixen went back to let the forest know that Tinka was ready to cook Death a meal that would warm their heart as well as fill their stomach. The vixen was cross about the ducks, which had looked fat and tasty, but she’d given her word.

Tea, Tinka’s mother and Tincuta’s grandmother, lived wherever the wind took her. She blew in with the leaves on a blustery night when the driving rain tossed witches on their broomsticks over the mountains in high winds, and when she came to ground it was in the land beyond the forest. She didn’t sing, but she could caw like a crow, and there were some that said she looked like one too, because her clothes were dark rags that hung from her shoulders like raggedy feathers.  She only had one cooking pot, which she brought with her on her broomstick, and all she ever cooked in it were spells, that people asked her for – or at least, the ones that dared approach her. 

Sometimes she collected the bits and pieces of a life that made people unhappy, and wrote them on scraps of paper, and burned them in her pot. And other times, she collected things that were not nice at all – cat poo, and dog poo, and the bits of dead animals that birds of prey spit out – and used them to effect… changes.

She wasn’t all bad. But she had to be asked nicely.

For all their differences the three generations of the family, Tea, Tinka and Tincuta, rubbed along nicely together. They understood each other. Accepted each others’ ways, laughed together when times were good and looked out for each other when times were bad. They were family, and all each other had, and that’s what families do. And other people knew that if they wanted a song that would brighten their day they were to ask for Tincuta. If what they wanted was food for their souls and their stomachs, Tinka was the one to go to. But if what they required was something they didn’t want to put into words for others to hear and remark upon, they needed to look for Tea, and approach her quietly, when no-one else was looking. 

The forest sent jackdaw to search for Tea, and beg her to do what she could to send Death on their way.

‘Take your most precious treasure,’ said the forest. ‘It’s worth more than gold for her to come and send Death from the village.’

So the jackdaw searched in his stash of jewels, and selected a magnificent diamond necklace. It pained him to part with something so lovely, but it was the biggest sacrifice he could make in order to conquer Death.

The jackdaw took flight with the necklace in his beak, and he flew and flew. Whenever he settled, he sat in the highest branches and scanned the ground, and peered. He knew what he was looking for. And even though he was hungry, and thirsty, he kept the diamond necklace clasped in his beak, so he could neither eat nor drink.

Eventually, spotting a movement in the undergrowth, the jackdaw swooped on silent wings and landed at a polite distance from where a bent little woman in rags was digging through roots, with her hands, like a mole. 

Eventually the woman stopped digging and stood up, with her back to the jackdaw. 

‘I know you’re there.’

All the same, she turned around. As she did so, the jackdaw laid the diamond necklace on the ground.

‘I know what you want, too.’

The jackdaw ignored being spoken to in such an ungracious way, and bowed deeply.

‘What do I want with diamonds?’ said Tea. ‘All the diamonds in the world are of less value than the tears of a person who has lost someone they love. So take them back. I don’t have any quarrel with Death. They’re just going about their business. Go on, flap off.’ With that Tea made a rude gesture and turned her back on the poor jackdaw. He stood guard over the diamonds for some time, but the old woman went on ignoring him.

Eventually the jackdaw picked up the unwanted necklace, and he flew, and flew, and returned to the forest. He was bone tired, and his stomach was empty, and his throat was parched. He laid the diamonds on the forest floor and wished they would turn to water that he could drink, and he admitted his failure. 

‘It’s not your fault,’ said the forest. ‘You tried your hardest. We have learned that Tea will not be persuaded with gifts. Perhaps we need to send someone who will command her. Boar, will you try?’ 

So the boar set out, and marched and marched, with all the ferocity of a general in command of an army that was facing a mighty enemy. He marched through the darkness until the glint of a tiny fire alerted him to Tea’s presence in a clearing ahead. Because he was a noble commander, and knew the value of ceremony, he trumpeted his arrival so that Tea would understand he saw her as a force to be reckoned with.

‘We are at war,’ the boar roared. ‘I have come in person to command you to join in the battle! It will be a fight to the death. Can we count on your support?’

Tea looked right into boar’s tiny red eyes. He was a fearsome beast, bristly and spiny, with tusks jutting like armour from his mouth, and he filled the clearing with his warlike body and his red-hot anger. 

‘You’re very impressive,’ said Tea appraisingly. ‘A ferocious opponent. But then so am I.’

Before the boar’s astonished eyes, Tea rose up and up, higher and higher and higher over the trees, her ragged clothes becoming bark and branches, her clawlike fingers extending into spiky twigs, until she towered above the entire forest. She grew so high she blocked out the moon, and the stars twinkled through the spaces between her outstretched fingers.

‘Even with all our forces, we cannot conquer Death,’ she shrieked. At the sound of her voice, flocks of birds fled from their perches. The air throbbed with the vibrations of their bodies and rumbled with the thunderous sound of their wings.

Even this terrible spectacle did not make the brave boar flinch. 

‘I am not afraid of you,’ he bellowed. ‘And I am more afraid of dishonor than I am of Death. Join me, and together we will conquer them.’

‘You have courage but if you think that you are a fool,’ cackled Tea. ‘Death will slaughter you in a second and fell me without a second thought. But I have no quarrel with Death. We are old acquaintances, and we know each other’s powers. Leave me in peace, valiant commander. I will not answer your call.’

So the boar marched back to the forest. It was the first time he had been defeated, and he was ashamed.

‘Lay down your arms, and rest,’ said the forest. ‘It is not your fault. We have learned that Tea will not meet her foe in combat. But what are we to do? We’ve offered treasures and the chance of an honourable battle. And if Tea does not help us then Death will take the whole village, and there’ll be no-one left.’

The forest fell silent, lost in thought, and wondered what it should do next. 

And then there was the sound of hooves, moving with gracious purpose, and stag stepped into a clearing. All eyes were on him as he lifted his great head to the moonlight. It bathed him in light, turning the antlers on his head into a silver crown.

‘I will go,’ said stag. He filled the clearing with a presence so regal that the forest fell silent in admiration of his majesty.

Stag progressed through the forest at a stately pace, neither fast nor slow, until he came face to face with the wizened old woman. 

‘So you have come,’ she said. ‘The King of the Forest. Do you intend to command me, my lord?’

‘No,’ said stag. ‘I have come to beg for your help. Your daughter is ready, and your grand-daughter too. But without you we can do nothing. We have no power without you. You are the only one who can take Death away from the village.’

The majestic stag lowered himself onto his knees in front of the old witch, humbling himself in front of her, and bent his magnificent head until his crown of antlers touched the ground by Tea’s feet.

‘What have you to offer me, my lord?’ she asked. ‘If you want me to do as you request?’

Stag raised himself to his feet, and lowered his head to his chest.

‘My living heart,’ he said. ‘I will pierce my flesh with my crown of antlers and give you my bleeding heart. I will lay down my life if you turn Death away from the village.’

Tea looked at the stag for a long time, and the air between them trembled.

‘I don’t need your heart, and the village does not need your sacrifice,’ she said at last. ‘There’s enough death. I don’t need treasure, and I have no desire for battle. But your nobility has made me see what the jackdaw and the boar could not. Invite Death to a feast. Tell my daughter and my grand-daughter I will see them there.’

On the appointed night, the forest made ready. A ceremonial table was laid in the clearing, decorated with bouquets of the spring bluebells that turned the spaces between the trees into bright pools of green and violet. Tincuta stood waiting by the head of the table, dressed in her finest, and Tinka stirred the brightly flowered enamel pot that hung over a carefully set fire. The food smelled mouthwateringly of sweet herbs and tangy roots. Fireflies hung over the table and round the edges of the clearing, filling the space with twinkling light.

Death was the first guest to arrive at the feast. Handsome and elegant in a velvet frock coat, they sat with quiet dignity at the head of the table.

The forest gathered itself, waiting. When it was time, and the moon had risen in the sky, Tincuta began to sing, her voice soaring in a lilting, lovely song of welcome as Tea’s procession arrived.

First came nightingale, then jackdaw, then vixen. Then the other creatures of the forest, rabbit and hare, mole and badger, dormouse and hedgehog and rat. The birds flew in their masses: robin, crow, thrush, blackbird, raven, owl. And then boar made his entrance, then stag, and finally, a small, veiled figure.

Death waited as Tea’s procession made its way to the head of the table.

Stag and boar, king and commander of the forest, each stood aside. Tea, shrouded in her veils, moved to stand next to Death. As a well-mannered person should, Death rose to their feet. 

‘You have invited us to this feast,’ they said. ‘Will you not show us your face?’

So Tea raised her hands to her veil, and lifted it from her face.

Tincuta launched into a new song, more joyful than the first, as Death looked into the face before them. This was not the face of the wizened old crone, but that of a young woman in a pure white dress, more beautiful than any person they had ever seen. Death felt a stirring in body and soul as they looked at Tea, and in great excitement they rose to greet her.

‘I come to you as your bride,’ said Tea, lowering her eyes. ‘Will you not kiss me?’

So Death placed their mouth on Tea’s, and their hands clasped, and breath passed between their lips.

‘My grand-daughter has sung our wedding song, and my daughter has prepared our wedding feast,’ said Tea. ‘Will you not eat with your bride?’

So Tinka served Death and Tea with great bowls of her sweet-smelling stew, and Death raised their spoon to their mouth again and again, until the dish was empty. 

‘And now will you come away with me, as is only fitting on our wedding night?’ said Tea. Then Death rose, eagerly, and stretched out their hand to her, and she took it, willingly. Because as Tea knew, Death cannot be overcome by precious gifts, or defeated by an army. Only love can conquer Death.

The forest creatures watched as Death let their bride lead them away from the forest. Hand in hand, they walked through the village, and went on their way. And though long years passed, and the villagers went courting in the forest again, and Tincuta sang songs to serenade every wedding in the village, and the birth of every child, and Tinka cooked the feasts to celebrate, Tea and her bridegroom were never to be seen again.

Tina Jackson is a writer, journalist and variety performer whose creative work encompasses secret lives, suppressed history, liminal spaces, everyday magic, and the borderlands between reality and imagination where extraordinary transformations take place. Her debut novel The Beloved Children was published by Fahrenheit Press in 2020 and she is the author of Stories from The Chicken Foot House (Markosia, 2018), a collection of grungy transformation tales illustrated by Andrew Walker, and Struggle and Suffrage in Leeds: Womens’ Lives and the Fight for Equality (Pen & Sword, 2019). She has an MA in Creative Writing from Sheffield Hallam University and her short stories and poems have been widely published in journals and anthologies.

Website: https://tinajacksonwriter.wordpress.com/
Twitter @TJacksonwriter

photo by Jay Mantri (via unsplash)

A Swarm Unto Herself—Barlow Adams

I know a woman with a beehive for a head, big as the pyramids, a basket woven by slave hands, fit for a queen, too small for a princess, labyrinthine and honey-trap. She sits in a cemetery older than art, raw-rubbed limestone slick before the first mammoth graced a cavern wall. A buzz, aflame, she sits among the dead, mouth open, a drawbridge for drones—in and out—thoughts and feelings. Sticky feet like muddy boots, treat the wounds even as they scrape her lips. 

I sit in the sting zone with a swollen tongue and golden fingers, dusted with pollen, making charcoal rubbings of ancient gravestones whose names have been stolen by wind and rain. 

“Here lies. Here. Lies.” I trace the truth, place it in her palm, but my words aren’t sweet enough for any servant to carry into her well-combed mind. 

She sings of summer in a thousand voices, yellow and black and labor and sun. We’ll be two more bleached bodies in an orchard of bone. After we’re gone the bees will still carry unspoken words from my throat to hers, as long as strangers bring flowers to honor beloved dead they never knew. Long as I can’t imagine a sweeter place to die. 

Barlow Adams is a writer and poet from the Cincinnati area with a pronounced interest in ghosts, faeries, basketball, and Godzilla. His stories and poems have appeared in many print and online journals. Follow him on Twitter @BarlowAdams

photo by Ante Hamersmit (via unsplash)

The Gull Heart—Constance Fay

On the edge of a bay, so close to the water that the high tide sometimes brushes against its foundations, stands a house made of sea glass. At night, it is a soap bubble, frothed and frozen as the waves roll in and the moon shines his light dispassionately on. In the day, it is every color of blue, green, and gray—at once cloudy and clear.  

The fisherman who lives within the sea glass house is, of course, the victim of a curse.

He has married four times and been widowed just as many. The first went to plague, the second to a fall, the third drowned. The fourth disappeared. Some say she left him, others can’t argue with the curse—she must be dead if she is gone. The fisherman keeps a simple home in the sea glass house. No one knows how he came to own it and no one asks, either. 

There is something about him that catches questions in the throat.  

His eyes are thundercloud gray over cheeks as weathered as a sealskin and a beard as coarse as a sponge. Tattoos line his arms and drip down to his fingertips. Four straight black ink lines stretch down from his left eye, one for each wife had and lost. When he speaks, his voice is rough as dry sand and falls flat against the slick walls. The sea glass house feels hollow when the tide brings him home and he wonders if the lives of four wives have glutted the curse to satiation.  

 A whale-bone hook arcs over the hearth, large enough to catch a kraken if the right bait were used. Some days, the fisherman takes the hook from the wall and runs his fingers over its smooth curve. Everything in the sea glass house is smooth. There is nothing for a memory to catch on even if one were created.  

One day, the fisherman is out on the water and he gets to talking to himself. He tells himself he’s thirsty. He tells himself he’s not finding any good fish. Finally, as the moon begins to rise, he tells himself that he’s lonely. He says he’d do just about anything to not be so lonely anymore.  

And the moon, well, he listens.  

“What is a wife worth to you?” The moon asks the fisherman as the boat bobs beneath his broad white face.  

“Anything.” The fisherman swears, wondering if he’s fallen asleep and is dreaming of the moon. He doesn’t know the result would be no different if he was. Promises made to the moon, asleep or awake, are binding.  

So, the moon tells him what to do. The fisherman is to take the whale bone hook from above his fireplace and carve it into the shape of a woman. He should put two embers in the place of its eyes, so that she can always see the truth. Two shells will serve as her ears, so that she hears things that others may not. He must bind the wrists and ankles with rosemary so that she will never leave him. Finally, he must cut off his tongue and give it to her for a heart.  

“My tongue?” The fisherman stares up at the moon with wide eyes. He doesn’t use his tongue often, but it is a large sacrifice.

“Did you think you were making a doll?” The moon bathes the fisherman with cold light.  

“If I do all this, I will have a wife?” 

“If you do all this, and leave the doll for the tide to wash on the first night of the crescent moon, she will be birthed from the sea for you. She will love you and, so long as you do not neglect her, she will not leave you.”

The fisherman starts to speak but the moon cuts him off.

“There is one limit to this magic. After that night, she may never again see my face in the night sky. Not even once.”  

The boat jerks suddenly and the fisherman realizes that he has run aground on the shoals where his sea glass house sits. He returns to his house, thinking about what the moon said. About what the moon wants in return. It’s not such a high price to pay for love and the end of a curse. A woman composed of bone and fire, animated by moonlight, will be unkillable.  

He carves that whale bone into a shape as delicate as a sprite and ties her thin wrists with rosemary twigs from his garden. For her ears, he uses shells of the palest pink, glossy and smooth. Two hot coals rest where her eyes would be.  

But, he can’t bring himself to cut his tongue. He has the knife there, in his mouth, when he thinks, maybe the moon was fooling him. A tongue for a heart doesn’t make sense at all and he doesn’t want a wife to have a heart that would be made of something as venomous as the tongue of a man. Her heart should be a soft thing. He switches a seagull heart for his own tongue, pinned to the bone chest, and is proud of doing so.  

On the first night of the crescent moon, the doll goes in the waves, tied under with a rope of seaweed bound to a stone. When she wakes, the bride struggles, spitting at the sea as it washes over her head, bathing her mouth in salt. The fisherman sees her floundering and cuts her free, carrying her bone-pale body from the water and setting her feet upon the sand. He rushes her within the sea glass house and only then realizes that a bride who must never see the moon and a house made of glass are in opposition.  

The next day, while she is learning how feet work and grunting her first newly birthed noises, the fisherman coats the inside of his sea glass house with white paint, throwing the interior into shadow and blocking the sky. When he comes inside, he takes his bride’s cheeks in his hands and names her Itzel. Newly born, she pops her lips at him happily.  

After a few months, Itzel learns how to be a woman rather than bone, fire, and flesh. She was created to obey him, so he doesn’t bother to tell her why she is not allowed outside at night. A command is enough to ensure compliance. She has a clever mind, a devotion to her husband, and a peculiar fascination with the sky. During the day, Itzel sits on the warm brown sand as the wind tangles her hair and watches the gulls circle overhead.  

“I almost feel like I could fly.” She spreads her arms wide as her husband brings in the daily catch. Her flesh is pale and smooth like the wings of a gull and he begins to grow uneasy.  

He gently pushes her into the dark house in front of him and they light candles. The sea glass is muted now, dull gray as the sun burns away the paint’s gloss. His home, where once he could count the stars above, is now shadowed and hot. In the night, when the candles have burned down, it feels as though he is in the darkest depths of the sea, the water pressing in on all sides. But then his wife, with her cool moonlight skin and voice like waves lapping at the shore runs a finger down the side of his neck, and he forgets about the stifling dark.  

They share time, between the day and the dark for five years. The four lines below the fisherman’s eye fade with age until they are barely noticeable in the weathered tan of his skin. His previous wives are ghosts compared to his lovely and gentle bone bride.  

They have an easy communion. So easy, he has to do nothing at all to satisfy her. If it wasn’t for her fascination with the sky, she would be perfect.  

One day, when the fisherman returns from his work, he sees her atop the nearby cliffs, arms spread and wind catching in the rippling fabric of her white dress. Her bare toes curl over the rough black rock and her feather-pale hair streams behind her in the breeze. His heart catches in his chest and his tongue suddenly feels too large for his mouth. She looks so delicate up there on the stone that he momentarily regrets carving such fragile flesh. 

“Itzel!” He shouts her name. It’s barely audible over the din of waves crashing against rock.  

She looks down on him and, for a moment, her eyes are so remote it’s like she doesn’t recognize him at all. Smoldering like the embers they once were until all he can see is the otherworldly glow of her attention. It is scalding. As though the bone and rosemary and that little bit of bird-flesh are not enough to contain the fire.  

She leaves the edge of the cliff, as if a rope binds her to his intentions. Her lip curls against it and her eyes, as always, drift to the sky. 

The next time he leaves, and every day thereafter, he locks her within the sea glass house. He says he can’t trust her not to throw herself off the cliff. He doesn’t understand the wild heart that beats within her chest—the heart that he gave her. 

She bounces off the walls of the tiny glass house all day and the next, trapped. After five days alone in the dark, she begins to scrape away at the paint that coats the inside of the house, fingers clawed and stiff. She’s desperate to see just a sliver of the sky. The paint gives at the same time as her nails break and day shines through at last. It’s enough. For now. She pants on the floor as a flake of sunlight paints her face. 

When the fisherman comes home, he doesn’t notice the damage. His path through the house, from door to bed, is well-worn. So frequently trod that he barely opens his eyes. He doesn’t notice anything except the angry line of his wife’s back as she turns from him in their bed. He’s irritated. A man makes a woman, he expects her to be a bit more amenable. 

Long after he’s asleep, her ember eyes remain open and she sees something new. A cool light shines through the wall of the sea glass house. She presses her face to the wall, gazing through the small scratched hole in the paint and, for the first time, beholds the moon. 

For the second time, the moon beholds her. 

He warned the fisherman of this moment. The fisherman isn’t very good at listening—confident in his own cleverness. To assume one can outsmart the moon is a foolish thing. 

The moon doesn’t speak yet. He waits and he watches. He has all the time in the world. Something about looking at the night sky makes people want to wish for things and Itzel, well, she’s human enough to succumb to the impulse.

“I wish I could be free.” she breathes as moonglow fills her eyes.

“Is that what you really want?” The moon asks her. Since she’s never seen the moon before, it doesn’t strike her as strange that he speaks. 

She thinks about that. About the desire that fills her heart more than any other. “No. I wish I could fly.”

“What is flying worth to you?”

“I don’t have anything.” She answers honestly. Everything in the sea glass house is owned by the fisherman, even her. 

That doesn’t bother the moon. He isn’t about taking. He’s about the wanting. Hers shines almost brighter than the moon’s own glow. Itzel now, while not exactly a person, is enough of one to want, and wanting is the defining trait of people. 

So, the moon tells her how to fly. She’s got the heart of a bird but not the wings. To make wings she needs five gull feathers, a frame of driftwood bound with yarrow for hope and nettle for perseverance. It seems simple until he comes to the part that powers it all. A spent curse. 

Curses are hard to come by. Spent ones even harder. If curses were easy to sever, they wouldn’t be so effective. Before long, Itzel has everything else she needs, collected in the afternoons when she is released from her coop and allowed to breathe the sea-salt air. The curse, however, remains elusive.

As does her husband. Sometimes he doesn’t come home at all and she’s trapped within the sea glass house for days on end. She has become another smooth fixture of the house, trying desperately to snag the edge of her husband’s attention—but it has drifted away, somehow. The stifling dark smothers her until the love bound to her with rosemary and carved into her flesh wears away like sand smoothing stone. She’s left raw and prickly, empty of anything except that driving desire for the sky. When he finally does return to the sea glass house, she looks upon him in a different way. 

What is her husband, if not the bearer of a curse? 

As she withdraws from him, and he from her, the dark tattoos below his eyes grow stark again. Four lines for four wives. Nothing for the fifth. The only way to get beneath the skin of the man is through death. The living hold no purchase, sloughing away from him like the shed scales of a snake. And what after that? After she has been shed?

She will be free to dance in the wind. No longer locked in a painted glass house. No longer bound to a man who considers her his property. She swells with the feeling of potential. His curse is key to her freedom. But how to spend it? How to capture it once spent?

Every curse is built with a hook. His is to love and lose. Cast upon him long before she knew him. It is formed around emotion and damage. The hook is always hidden within the meat of a thing. 

In the end, it’s laughably easy. 

It’s not the man who is cursed, no. It is his heart. While it may have felt something for the four previous wives, it never has for her. She is a wife but she has never been a love. Love is not entrapment. Even a made creature understands that much. What she needs to power the moon’s spell is not the man. It is the part of him that she has never yet held. The part that loved and lost until it grew dry and hollow. 

It is not hard to kill him. He doesn’t consider her at all except in reflection of himself. Didn’t he secure bone wrists with rosemary once? He was so confident in their bindings that he forgot the caveat. 

So long as you do not neglect her, the moon had said. 

The fisherman gave her the heart of a bird and then blocked her from the sky. It is enough to loosen the binding of the herbs. Enough to make her will her own. 

She’s waiting in the dark of the sea glass house when he comes back from a long day fishing, harpoon in her hand and ash in her eyes. He blinks. She is out of place. An ottoman moved unexpectedly. A cup out of the cabinet. 

The harpoon goes in smooth as a wing cuts through air. When he opens his mouth, blood stains his teeth. Still, he is not angry or fearful. He is confused. A misplaced teacup cannot kill. 

He created her to please him. 

The moon created her for another purpose entirely. 

It occurs to her to apologize. She should. She’s killed a man she was bound to love. A fifth dark line drips from his eye. A bloody tear. Finally, she has marked him. 

She does not apologize. 

When his eyes dim as flat as the painted sea glass house, she lays him on the sand under the light of the moon and retrieves his heart. The curse lies inert within its weight. 

It is smaller than she expected. 

When she ties it within the frame of driftwood, yarrow, and nettle, it rests—soft and warm—between her shoulder blades. The pain that wracks her body is sweet and bright as wings spring from her back and smooth white feathers pierce her flesh. She twists and writhes and finally bursts forth anew.

Beneath the gaze of the moon, she flaps her wings and takes to the air. The night is clear and cold and—when she caws a ragged cry of liberty—the calls of other gulls greet her. 

 On the edge of a bay, so close to the water that the high tide sometimes brushes against its foundations, stands a house made of sea glass. Once, long ago, it was painted and dull. It has been scraped clean since then and—on a clear night—it reflects the light of the moon. 

A woman lives in the house. One with skin as pale as bone and eyes that glow like embers when roused. In the day, she stands atop the cliffs overlooking the water and the wind ruffles her hair as it rushes from sea to sky. At night, she takes flight from those same cliffs, buoyed by the air and watched by the moon. 

She talks to him, on occasion. Not to ask for a favor, no. The moon grants those rarely and they nearly all come with a hook. She seeks nothing but to share the joy of the sky.

The moon talks back. She is his first child. He loves nothing better than to watch her fly.

Constance Fay lives in Colorado, USA. She works in medical devices by day and writes by night, accompanied in both by a very opinionated cat. Her fiction has previously appeared in the horror anthology 99 Tiny Terrors, as well as in Crow & Cross Keys (“The Fox Bride and the Hawthorn Queen,” March 2022)Her website is www.constancefay.com and she can be found at @constanceefay on both Twitter and Instagram.

photo by Ingo Ellerbusch and Marty McGuire (via unsplash)

The Croak—Ellen Forkin

I soar as the world turns to winter. The heather is purpling, like swathes of velvet upon the green, grass-tufted land. The thistledown’s catch the wind, the docks and cow parsley have turned to rust. The bogs are dark, muddied, treacherous. The harvest fields, golden, gleaming, rippling a whispering wave of barley. I pecked the fields when they were sown, stabbed my dagger beak into the sweet earth. I strut among them still, catching glimpses of mice, voles, a hare, its startled eye as brown as a hazelnut. I am safe amongst the whispering ocean. 

It was not always so.

I was human, a dozen lifetimes ago. A little uncanny. Braided hair and haunting songs, sharp eyes and quick fingers. Unmarried, untethered. Some said unsafe. Hag, crone, witch. Names thrown like stones, hard and sharp, through spitting teeth. Men with books, accusations – then neighbours, villagers, townies, friends. Yes, she knows her poisons. Yes, the Devil knows her name. 

I crouched amongst the barley, barefoot and fingers trembling. I crouched until I took flight. 

I soar. The sky and sea are two mirrors of grey. I fly alone, skimming the islands’ edges with their speckled sand, their dark tresses of seaweed, the tang of it carrying on the salted wind. I wheel down, stretched feathers warm in the amber sunlight, and flap gently, lower and lower. My leathery feet alight on a moss-furred fencepost. I cling to it, needle claws scratching the weathered wood. There are perhaps fifty like me, black and sharp-beaked and beetle-eyed. Each on their own fencepost, we sit, we gather, we know. We croak over the murmur of barley, grass, heather. We talk of juicy bugs, earthy grains, the warmest roosts and wildest winds. We reminisce about nimble fingers, breath-catching dances, soft, cooked meat. We caw and croak and sing until the full moon sits heavily in the sky. Then we fly home, as quietly as we came, soaring under a night of pinprick stars.

Ellen Forkin is a chronically ill writer living in windswept Orkney with her semi-wild rook. You can find her work and upcoming publications in The Haar, The Alternative Stories Podcast, Northwords Now and New Writing Scotland

photo by Mark Timberlake (via unsplash)

Afterimage—Sarah Kennedy

The dead, the gentle dead—who knows?—
In tungsten filaments abide. (Pale Fire)

They say that the souls 
of the dead we have loved
find their way home 
by the lights we leave out.

I lit up the house 
with the blaze of your loss,
white and silent as a winter afternoon.

No marshlight this, no burning reed 
nor wisp of tallow; no dancing flame
nor candle-glow, but strong and constant
as the wire snare that laps the throat.

I wait for you, warding sleep,
your cheeks lucent and your gaze dark,
trailing icy finials of night. 
I yearned for the caught breath 
and the locked eye,
the singular rapture of recognition. 

Did you appear, drawn blindly
by waves of incandescent 
brightness? Are you shadow or outline, 
Stranded on the farther shore?

Tungsten casts a cold light,
And the empty phonograph offers no voices
in its ragged dispersals of sound.
There is no vision gorgeous enough to trap you

No diode ever made to catch the crystal of your voice,
but only this ghost at the back of my eye,
A radiant fiction such as
we must gift ourselves in sleep.

Sarah Kennedy is a writer and critic based in the UK. Her work is grounded in the deep magics of ecological process, in myth, metaphor, and metamorphosis. Her poetry and fiction is immersed in the landscapes of her native Australia, of Dartmoor, and of the north downs in Kent. She tweets @WildThymeUnseen.

photo by Devon MacKay (via unsplash)

The Witch from Rapunzel—Carol Berg

I wanted a daughter I could feed spells to.
My garden, easy to grow, so much soil, so many
roots. The lettuce, succulent green, the leaves

curled into each other like so many hugs.
Who wouldn’t want to eat it? I could build
a garden, but a tower, that was something else.

So when the carpenter and his wife tried to trick
me, I tricked back. I planted the girl
in the tower, like a deep root grows a pine tree. 

She spun her own craft with songs sung in a voice
that left even me undone. Climbing up her hair
was like climbing into her throat. 

No one speaks of me or my hair anymore—it too
flowed around me like the sea flows around rock,
soft to the touch—May sun on first tulip petal.

I ripped each follicle 
out of my scalp.
Not one root grew back.

And now I understand the desire 
of Rapunzel’s mother—the want
of a silk thread inside my mouth.

Carol Berg’s poems are forthcoming or in GyroscopeCrab Creek Review (Poetry Finalist 2017), DMQ ReviewHospital Drive (Contest Runner-Up 2017), Sou’westerSpillwayRedactionsRadar PoetryVerse Wisconsin. Her chapbooks, Her Vena Amoris (Red Bird Chapbooks), and “Self-Portraits” in Ides (Silver Birch Press) are available. Her poems have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes and Best of the Net. She was winner of a scholarship to Poets on the Coast and a recipient of a Finalist Grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. 

photo by Nathan Dumlao (via unsplash)

Windsinger—Angie Spoto

A young man lived in a stone house beside the shore with his father, mother and three brothers. Though he came from a long line of fisherfolk and sailors, though his mother had been a herring girl who could gut a fish in two strokes of a knife and his father a sailor who had slain pirates, and though his three brothers were seal killers who made his family rich with their pelts, the young man had no fire for death. He couldn’t bring himself to harm a living thing. 

In the early hours of the morning, he would sneak from the house and pick up the snails that had crawled onto the bricks of the promenade. He would deliver them onto the rocks beside the shore, saving them from the crushing footfalls of the townspeople and their horses. He would not kill a spider, even if it crawled into his bed.

All of this would have been tolerable had he been able to fish. But even the thought of watching a fish suffocate in the air, body thrashing, eyes wide, made his heart hurt. His family thought him useless. He had no trade. Instead, he spent his days gathering driftwood on the shore. At night, he’d sit on the seawall and carve by moonlight. The driftwood would transform between his fingers into little wooden flutes, each with a different tune. Windsingers, he called them, and that’s what his brothers called him.

“Windsinger,” they’d shout on their way to the shore, knives flashing in their fingers. “Playing your songs for the fish tonight?”

The young man wasn’t sure if his brothers knew the truth. 

That he did exactly that. 

When the moon was full and the tide was so high the sea sprayed against his legs as he dangled them over the wall, he would take out his newest windsinger and he would play. He imagined the fish enjoyed the sound, and he would play a song to make them dance. Sometimes, he thought he caught a flash of silver scales darting among the crests.

One night, when the moon hung full and the song from his windsinger filled the air, a curve of white broke the water. It glittered and then was gone. He continued to play, but he felt now as if someone were beside him. He glanced over his shoulder. He was alone, but when he looked again at the sea, he saw the fish.

It was not like the fish his mother would gut and slice and fry. It was not grey or speckled. It was silver-white and so large it would have bent him double had he taken it into his arms.

He played for the fish, and it danced through the water. He played until the wind swept clouds across the moon, until the beach was awash with darkness, until the fish was only a stroke of white in a black sea. As if to say its thanks, the fish lifted its face from the water, revealing its jet-black eyes.

In the time between the full moons, the young man learned what it meant to yearn. He thought only of the fish. He composed melodies in his mind. He searched for the perfect wood to carve the perfect windsinger for his new friend. He didn’t care how his father chided him or his mother sighed or his brothers laughed. He watched the moon grow thin and then fat until finally the night arrived.

When the moon was full, the young man settled himself on the seawall. He took out his flute and he began to play. He poured into the song all his yearning, wishing and imagining and dreaming. At first, it seemed as if the fish would not come, but suddenly, it appeared. A stroke of white. A silver dance. He played and played until the night grew long and the sea began to pull away with the tide. As if to say thank you, the fish darted between his feet, and its scales brushed his skin. That night, the young man settled into his bed with a full heart. He did not care what his family thought of him. He was happy.

For many moons, the young man played for the fish. Sometimes, his song became singing and sometimes his singing became talk, and he found himself confiding in the fish, telling it his worries and fears. That his family did not love him. That he would never make anything of himself. That he’d been born broken, something within him missing. The fish never spoke, of course, but it listened. 

Then one day, a day before the full moon, the young man’s father died. It was sudden, an accident, and the whole family was submerged in grief. His mother sat and gutted fish after fish, slicing her heartache into their soft skin. His brothers went out and killed more seals than they had ever before. They came back with bloody hands. The young man went out to collect driftwood, but his grief made him restless. His hands shook, and his bones were heavy. The wood felt light, useless, insubstantial in the face of his emotion. He returned home empty handed. 

“You need to kill something,” his brothers said, and for once they didn’t mock him. He looked at his family with their red hands and fierce eyes, and for the first time in his life a desire rose within him. To snuff out a life. To cut it short. To control at least one thing in this world that controlled him. 

His mind made up, that night he returned to the seawall with not just a windsinger but also the little silver knife he used to carve them. He played and soon the fish came. He played while the fish danced, until the wind swept clouds across the moon and the sea was black, and then when the fish rose from the water to say its thanks, he reached his hand into the sea. The fish brushed its scales against his fingers. With his other hand, he took his knife and he thrust it deep into the fish’s side. 

The moment the blade pierced the fish’s skin, he understood what it meant to kill, why it came so easily to his family. It meant power and control, hurting something that trusted you. He had never felt this way in his life. In the moment that the blade pierced the fish’s skin, he felt something like a fire-burst of happiness, but it was gone as quickly as it came. It was nothing like the happiness he had felt when he played his windsinger beneath the moon.

The fish, strong and big as it was, twisted and thrashed. The blade’s handle slipped from his fingers, as the fish tore away from him and darted into the waves. He watched it go, the blade still stuck deep into its flesh. He felt heavy then, as if the sky weighed on his shoulders. He was empty and tired. He threw his windsinger into the sea, and then, too exhausted to return home, he settled onto the edge of the seawall and slept.

Was it a dream when a figure rose from the water? She was dressed in all green, save for a white jewel that hung from her neck. 

“Are you the Windsinger?” the woman asked.

The young man sat up. “I am.”

“You must come with me.” She extended her hand, and he took it because what did it matter now? His father was dead and his fish, too. He’d killed a living creature and he was no better for it. 

The woman led the young man into the sea. They walked until the water reached their necks, and then they kept walking, right into the waves, until they were no longer walking but falling, down and down to the bottom of the seafloor. A large rock loomed above them, and in its side was a door. The woman walked through and the young man followed. They entered into a hall filled with strange, weeping people, but they did not linger. The woman led him through the hall into a room, where on a bed lay a man— a prince, judging by the coronet on his head.

His eyes were shut tight. Around his head splayed white-silver hair. In his side flashed a silver carving knife. 

“This is our prince, and he is dying,” the woman said. “Is that your knife?”

The young man nodded. He could not speak for the knot in his throat.

“Then you are the only one who can save him. Remove the knife and kiss the wound.”

The young man did as she asked. As soon as his lips met the prince’s skin, the wound closed, and the prince was healed. The prince awoke and looked into the young man’s eyes, but before they could speak, the woman took the young man’s elbow and led him away. She ushered him through the hall, which was now filled with strange, dancing people.

Before she let him go out into the sea, she said, “Promise me one thing. Never kill a creature of the sea. Protect them like family.”

“I promise, I will never kill again,” the young man said.

She nodded and handed him something wrapped in cloth. “Do not open this until you return home.” And with that she released him, and the water’s currents swept him away, up and up until he broke the surface and he felt the sand beneath his feet again. He walked onto the shore and settled himself on the seawall.

He unwrapped the object she had given him. It was his own windsinger, the same one he had thrown into the sea.

The young man returned home. He woke at dawn to pluck the snails from the promenade. He ushered spiders through open windows. Each morning, he warned the seals of where his brothers intended to hunt, and they soon lost their trade. His mother’s fingers became clumsy, and she could no longer gut fish. But it did not matter because despite all this, somehow they always had enough. 

And whenever the full moon rose bright and proud in the sky, the Windsinger went to the shore to play for his prince. They danced until the wind swept clouds across the moon and the sea was black, until they were nothing more than shadows on the sand, and the singing of the flute became the song of the sea.

Windsinger is inspired by ‘The Seal Killer’ a Scottish folktale retold by Bob Peg in The Anthology of Scottish Folk Tales.

Angie Spoto is an American fiction writer and poet living in Edinburgh. She is editor of the collection Disclosures: Rewriting the Narrative About HIV published by Edinburgh-based press Stewed Rhubarb. Her poetry, essays and surrealist and horror stories have appeared in numerous publications around the world.

www.angiespoto.com
Instagram: @angiespotoauthor
Twitter: @Angie_Spoto

photo by Kyaw Tun and Casey Horner (via unsplash)

In a manor—Rebecca Dempsey

She broods alone on the cliff, an old house frowning toward the lines of breakers and beyond, to where the sky submits, kissing the restless face of the vast ocean. The building’s weathered features sag and creak in the cold, briny wind, waiting for her owner. And she does return: in the evenings with the new moon. With her presence, the dark, colossal dwelling is transformed. The old mansion shakes off the dour expression and greets the visitor with gaping smiles from its broken and jagged leaded windows. Light and mist and orchestral music spill out from the cracked front door, across the wrecked porch into the decaying yard, flowing over the edge of the subsiding cliff, colours falling and flowering in the sunset, and then lost in the roiling, inky swell below. 

Inside, candlelight flares to play with the shy shadows lurking in the corners, scurrying from room to room at her heel, as the guest paces with gracious mien through the webbed and empty corridors. She chooses to return, and everything forlorn is glad once more.

The visitor glides silently down the central staircase, crosses the leaf-scattered atrium and enters the parlour. Muted laughter and piano music float through with her measured footsteps. Heavy moth-eaten velvet curtains drift in salt-scented drafts. Her light sparkles through dusty cut crystal chandeliers. Grey coiffed ancestors gaze down from flaked and darkening antique portraits, their dulled glares reflected in gilt-edged mouldering mirrors.

In the parlour, a fire blazes and crackles at the guest’s approach. She takes a glass of glowing ruby red from the mantle and surveys the room as she takes a sip. Everything is as it should be. The visitor sets her glass down, smooths her gown, and sweeps back her tresses. The music, echoing throughout, takes up a statelier tone as she makes her way to the great hall. The French doors open for her, and even before she sees him she’s walking to where he’ll be standing: breathless, expectant, but to attention, in full dress uniform. 

She smiles, and the light from her is reflected in him. He bows and, taking her gloved hand in his, leads her to the centre of the space. They wait, poised, and then the music changes tempo again, to match their slow circles. As they dance across the scuffed parquetry floor, their movements add further swirling patterns over the broken timber. Eyes lost in each other’s gaze; time stands still. The dance slows. At the centre of the old hall, this night, she leans her head upon his chest as he clasps her close. She can’t see his shining tears, as he buries himself in the scent of her raven hair, haloed in the starlight. He holds her even closer: they incline towards one another always, caught in each other’s gravity. They cling to each other now, waiting. 

A tremor runs through the building, almost like a sigh. The couple’s light dims. Flames flicker and go out in the breeze. Finally, the music drifts away on the tide as the spray of stars tilt slowly lower, before fading as they dip below the horizon. 

This is how it is, since it happened, for the couple, for the old house. Since the raucous parties at the cliff top mansion fled, and passed onto other shores, once and for all. 

Yet, she returns, a promise fulfilled. 

For years, people pull up in determined convoys following old stories, rumours and superseded maps, studying the area for remnants of the mansion’s crumbling façade. Each attempt meets failure, and those lines of vehicles full of sight seers, history buffs, and treasure hunters hurtle back along the wrecked and overgrown coastal road in the night. These travellers, frustrated and confused, start determined, and then they dwindle. Each passing decade with no results. Wayward tourists occasionally buy postcards of the infamous manor from the nearby village, until they stop printing them, for lack of interest. The last of picturesque cards remain in the local history museum, fading under glass. 

Late some nights, surfers, or gaggles of city students partying in camps further up the coast, fooled by the echoes of happier times, swear they see lights pouring across the ocean from the broken building. Some suggest they hear music and shouts of laughter over the incessant waves. Bemused locals shrug at the stories told out front of the grocery store: they’ve heard it all before, the legends. 

The stars, the coast, can play tricks, they tell the young people, tapping their heads. Perhaps a bit too much to drink last night, they suggest. Or smoke? 

Students and surfers laugh and leave, moving onto more carefree adventures up the coast, happy to abandon the locals to their mysteries. 

The residents, too, take care to point out it’s a new moon. 

Of course, they explain, you don’t understand what it’s like here

Older residents shake their heads, their smiles fixing as they avert their gazes, lost in the past. Some, when prompted, offer their excuses before shuffling away, unwilling to share secrets, leaving searchers thwarted. 

There are days though, some rare days, when town folk are roused from reflection to more willingly refer travellers to the fading articles collected in the corners of the library window. Others point towards the old display in that ignored museum, open every third Saturday of the month. 

Dutifully following directions, curious visitors shudder as they read about the grandeur of the lost manor house. These tourists, quest complete, shrug into their jackets, chilled after they’ve learned about the newly-weds, the famed heiress celebrated for her charitable works, and her husband, the dashing Great War veteran. They drive off, eager to abandon the little village, tense and overcome, contemplating the beautiful couple, and how, on the night of their fifth anniversary, they disappeared with their shining home on the promontory in the devastating landslip after the biggest storm of the decade, in 1922.

And this is how it continues. 

Rebecca Dempsey’s recent works are featured in Provenance Journal, The Ekphrastic Review, Electica Magazine, and Ink Pantry. Rebecca grew up in rural South Australia, and lives in Melbourne. She can be found at WritingBec.com.

photo by Annie Spratt (via unsplash)

Two Poems—Jayd Green

Froglet 

All was amniotic & suspended in circus fluid – dancers and skaters all around your roundness. You were a bubble, a sponge, a dot. Your neighbour was a newt’s breakfast. 

You are old enough that the newt does not worry you now. It used to push against your cushion – which was belly, limb, eye and mouth all at once – with a precise kneading. Perfect invasion of your maybe-brethren. 

And then land, which is more water than you expect. An embryonic boundary layer. The moon is a great big lung. 

The green sludge that you bed on is slick and gruelling. Hard to eat this explosion of matter and grow. Hunting, however, so easy and smooth. Your tongue is more hand than fist. Pluck a hoverfly, pinch a money spider, pull an ant into you and chew it over like a long thought. This is what you do when the sun cooks the pond at high noon, water soldiers crackling like eggshells. 

There is terror here, and it smells sweet: of sick, and death, which smells sweeter, and draws the ants. An elder lay folded in like a stone, rocking when the breeze hits. Skinbone, blackened, bleached and chewed. It is awful.

You do not have ‘disease’ in your language, so fear takes its place. No, there is no ignoring it now: frogs all dead and wasting, with necrotic limbs and bleeding at both ends. Devilish. 

It comes with you, from pond to pond, awful ghosts trailing like an anchor. You feel safer, alone in dark crevices, and you believe it feeds on fear. You have no science to go on. 

The summer is hot & long & wasting.

The devil’s seat

A whale skeleton suspended 
a cloud hugging the ceiling, a short breath from
caving in the skylight with baleen weaponry. 
If it had washed up on a beach, its fate had been fairer  

than a mother self-beaching to find a lost 
baby while its screeching song still rang 
in her skull, its vibrational pull severed 
between townspeople for blubber, bones still 
pulsing leading local craftsmen to carve it and splice 
it with vertebra which they cut into dovetails 
and wide-tooth combs, bolting it all together with iron 
nails, unable to reconcile why the seat made them sad 
for their sons like they were expecting a war –

offering the seat to the church, which meant offering it to god 
who knew the grieving tune it held, listened in a state of 
contemplation which does not often happen to god 
and we’re not really sure what his answer was, are we? 

but we listen to the fisherfolk because they know what hard 
weather is – they call it the devil’s seat and won’t go near it, 
being far more susceptible to everlasting whale songs than you are. 

and think: how easy it is to see the shapes of dragons
in the silhouettes of silent animals.

Jayd Green is a writer living in Norwich. She is currently a PhD student with the University of Suffolk, and Editorial Advisor for experimental poetry publisher, Osmosis Press. Her poems have appeared in Anthropocene, Foliate Oak literary magazine and Royal Rose. Forthcoming, she has a poem in the Broken Sleep Books ecopoetry anthology. Her writing and research is concerned with contemporary nature writing practices, ecocriticism, and the ecogothic. Her twitter handle is @jaydgreen

photo by Erik van Anholt (via unsplash)