Somnolentia—Louise Mather

she waited for the snow to harbour
bewitched by somnolentia

she ripped ivy with her thumbs
unleashed apple bark

plummeting in ringlets
flecks of lace

she bit the tallow
down to the roots

spat thread and trussed molasses
burnt to the other side

of the candle
larvae

buried long ago
were they humming

molecules
could they be free of convulsions

she asked about the trigger
whether the word

whole

meant archaic
numbness or trauma

she didn’t know where
to put them

returned to the lilac bough
asphyxiated with callous rain

bricked leaves wrenched with gales
nothing if not upended

how could she tell
if they were alive

for the beholder of logic
the delusion of languor

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

of something other than
stillness

in the debris
as the world continued to move

either way
they would be carried along with it

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

photo by Halanna Halila (via unsplash)

Two Poems—Jack B. Bedell

Lethologica

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

Ghost Swell, Henderson

“Find beauty, be still.”—W.H. Murray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

photo by Elvis Bekmanis (via unsplash)

Little Man—Charlotte Turnbull

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

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

‘Find the bucket,’ she shouted to Charlie.

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


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

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

‘What’s that?’ She sniffed.

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

She threw up a window and suggested the walk.


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

‘You’ve missed the end,’ he said.

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


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

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

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

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

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

Charlie ripped open a large glass fish tank.

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

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


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

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

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

‘Because it might run away,’ she said.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

‘What shall I do?’ he asked, weakly.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

photo by Annie Spratt (via unsplash)

Two poems—Grace Alice Evans

by the river

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

a memory/in the chamber

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

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

photo by Marc Wieland (via unsplash)

Rust Belt Jessie’s Taxonomy of Ghosts—Jessie Lynn McMains

Trying to classify inherently unknown entities whose very existence and nature remains unproven is a fool’s errand: How many types of ghosts are there? As many as you want there to be.

—Benjamin Bradford, The Curious Question of Ghost Taxonomy

6660 Ghosts

—6660.1 Ghosts that haunt a location
—6660.111 Those that came with the place
—6660.112 The amorphous black mist with a feeling of knives
—6660.113 The traveling salesman who hung himself when his wife left him for another man
—6660.114 The small boy pressing his face to the lighthouse window, his ghost-breath leaving no fog on the glass, always just about to fall
—6660.12 Those that are just passing through, the travelers
—6660.121 The little-girl ghosts in the kitchen that one sleepless night, chattering slumber party giggle-speak, clattering the spoons and jam jars
—6660.122 The sad ghost with no shoes who perched on the edge of your bed, told you of how he watched his little sister die
—6660.13 Those that haunt the places you pass through
—6660.131 The tipsy ghosts in bars that sleep curled up like mezcal worms in bottles of whiskey, tequila, and gin
—6660.132 The lonely ghosts in motel rooms that lurk like shadows behind the shower curtains, fall in love with every traveler who stays for a night or two
—6660.133 The ghosts in the woods and wetlands: floating bog fire, wisps of fog, flashes of shadow-black between the trees, the ones who speak as a chorus of bullfrog moan, mosquito whine, redwing blackbird chatter
—6660.134 Ghosts that live in graveyards
—6660.1342 Those that wear white and wander, moaning, between the headstones
—6660.1343 Those that burrow behind your eyeballs like tiny bees and drink from your tear ducts
—6660.135 The ghosts on the highways and byways: truck stop spirits who stand in piss-soaked bathrooms and dream of coffee, hobo ghosts who roam the railroads, the steel ley-lines stitching the stolen country together, hitchhiking ghosts who stand by the side of the road at night, their deer-eyes glowing yellow in the headlights’ high beam

—6660.2 Ghosts that haunt objects
—6660.21 Ghosts that live inside maps and atlases, who drift up from the creases and the inky blue scrawls of rivers with a rustle and a sigh
—6660.22 Ghosts that live inside the old photographs you find in antique stores: the hardtack women in long dresses and bonnets squinting, unsmiling, in the hard prairie sunshine; the dapper young man who looks so much like the grandfather who died before you were born you want to cry
—6660.222 Ghosts that haunt all the secondhand curiosities in antique stores and thrift shops: musty ghosts in the vintage dresses, moth-ghosts in the tailcoats, ghosts that haunt the cracked teacups, the worn-soled boots, the rusted skeleton keys
—6660.223 Those that live in your own old clothes, that hide in the fibers no matter how many times you’ve tried to wash them out: the ghost of a lover’s sweat, of a smoky cafe, of the stale yeast of the beer that lead singer sprayed onto the crowd, of dumpster juice
—6660.23 Ghosts that haunt the air
—6660.231 The ones that live in earl gray-scented candles, spirits made of wax and essence of bergamot, with fuchsia hair and junkie veins and typewriter teeth
—6660.232 The ones that live in a vial of Rain, specters smelling of wet cedar, wearing black hoodies, bearing gifts of mix tapes
—6660.24 Ghosts that haunt the ear
—6660.242 Those that hide inside the magnetic reels of audio cassettes, that hiss faintly behind the music, a distant spectral static
—6660.243 Those that lurk between the dusty grooves of old records, that come out with a pop and click as soon as the needle hits

—6660.3 Ghosts that haunt the head
—6660.31 The swarms of your best-beloved dead: friends, family, old flames, anyone you’ve cared for deeply
—6660.312 Those whose profiles you can still find on social media, scroll through their final selfies, read the last thing they ever said to you, digital monuments floating forever in the Cloud
—6660.313 Those whose internet presence is gone, who you no longer have any physical reminders of, so you place pictures of them in the altar you’ve carved inside your head, offer them your own tin heart, your silver lungs, your haunted bones as milagros, as though any miracle of blood and metal can bring them back from where they’ve gone
—6660.314 The ghosts of the children you couldn’t have, who on long nights when you can’t sleep cradle themselves into your arms, invisible stones smelling of sun-baked moss, warmer and heavier than anything un-alive should be
—6660.32 The ghosts of people who aren’t dead but who departed from your life just the same: old friends and ex-lovers you think about at 2 a.m. when you’re half-drunk and listening to songs that act as auditory Ouija boards, summoning the past and its cast of breath, and yes, there they all are, waltzing ghosts, slam-dancing ghosts, ghosts sulking coolly in the back of the room
—6660.322 The ghosts who come out from the walls, who crawl up in your skin if you let them
—6660.33 The ghosts you want to haunt you, who can’t be lured with old songs or drams of Irish whiskey, no matter how your throat cracks from the vanilla smoke-burn, cracks on the feeling of fifties tunes, I only have eyes for you (oooh, ooh-hoo), they will only visit you when they want to, and it’s usually only when you’re asleep
—6660.34 The ghosts you wish to banish, the ones that follow you around, stray dogs starving, snarling and snapping at your ankles, that can’t be kept away no matter how many salt circles you cast, how many electric fences you erect around your heart
—6660.35 The ghost of your younger self that you glimpse sometimes in your peripheral vision, that you see sometimes standing beside you when you stop to check your reflection in the dirt-streaked glass windows of the shut-down souvenir shop, this ghost looks different every time you see it, cycling as it does through ages, haircuts and colors, subcultural styles
—6660.36 Ghosts that can be confused with symptoms of mental illness, that flit around your skull and hover near the ceiling, shadow-bats that you’re never sure if they’re real or hallucinated; sometimes hallucinations are mistaken for real things, but sometimes real things can look like hallucinations

—6660.4 Ghost oddities, miscellaneous spirits which don’t fit into any of the other categories, or fit into more than one
—6660.42 Ghosts that hide in the wind, that blow through you like wind through the tall tick-salted grass
—6660.43 Ghosts that stand out in your yard at dusk, dark silhouettes never moving, but you can tell they’re looking back at you, and you realize that backlit as you are by the living room light from their vantage point you must also appear as only a black smudge in the vague shape of a person and you start to wonder which one of you is the ghost after all
—6660.44 Ghosts that look and smell like old leather jackets, hanging on the coat rack in the back hall
—6660.441 Ghosts you carry in your coat pockets like charms, that you take out occasionally and rub for good luck
—6660.45 Ghosts that shoot smack and ride skateboards
—6660.46 Ghosts that are small fires
—6660.47 Ghosts that hang out under railroad bridges in Richmond, Virginia, wearing magnolia blossoms in their hair
—6660.472 Ghosts that hang out at the edges of quarry lakes in Racine, Wisconsin, dipping their ghost-toes in the murky water
—6660.48 Ghosts which can be summoned with a mullein torch, the wooly grey-green leaves and five-petaled yellow flowers of Our Lady’s Flannel set burning
—6660.482 Ghosts which can be summoned with a sprig of rosemary worn in your boutonnière
—6660.483 Ghosts which can be summoned with a dish of stale candy corn
—6660.485 Ghosts that taste of salted watermelon
—6660.49 Ghosts you feel like lumps in your throat, shards of rock candy or chunks of apple blocking your windpipe, but when you try to cough them out there’s nothing there
—6660.492 The ghost of the best kiss you ever had, that brushes against your lips when you’re standing in the kitchen slicing garlic or sautéing zucchini

—6660.5 Ghosts that come to me and ask: don’t you think you write too many poems about ghosts?
—6660.51 And I tell them no, no, there’s no such thing as too many ghost-poems, all poems are about ghosts
—6660.52 Everything I write is an elegy, decaying
—6660.521 Decaying like the bodies of my dead in their graves, turning into dark earth to feed the cemetery trees, the flowering dogwood and the white pine, to feed my poems
—6660.522 And every elegy has a half-life, half its potency disintegrated yet always leaving just enough of a trace to poison the landscape
—6660.53 Okay, okay, the ghosts say, so all poems are about us. But why, they wonder, do I speak only of summoning? Why don’t I describe the ways I’ve banished them?
—6660.531 The kinds of ghosts I know can’t be banished, not really. The only form of banishment that’s ever worked for me is this:
—6660.6 Hold your ghosts so close they become part of you, flesh of your flesh, keep them so close they build their hives, their homes, down among your haunted bones

photo by Leeroy Agency (via unsplash)

Brook—Sophie Dickinson

Do you know what it’s like/ to live with witches/ to have witches in the clear water and when, on a summer evening, your grandmother says goodbye in a car park/ there’s a witch in the air, in the gravel?/ Do you know what it’s like to hear stories/ of witches burrowing in the nick of Pendle/ a hill you can’t see from your bedroom window, there should be a line of trees/ but when you drive through the crook there are ruined barnyards and half-formed sheep/ one winter, fields and fields of dying lambs and branches so black they looked burned?/ Witches so well-known that they sit in tiny plastic chairs and are propped on windowsills/ a silhouette in a painting and also in the stone eye on the church/ somehow in the stained glass of Reed Hall/ in my grandad’s car when we lost a kite/ in the panopticon over Wycoller./ Witches eat the dry stone walls, witches gnaw on information boards in public parks./ Witches stuff moss into my cheeks, flush to the bone. In the slanted light you can/ imagine their death, but they are/ dying again when you run over a railway bridge with a Chinese lantern, dying again as a barn owl flies over a roundabout, silent arch over glowing tarmac./ Do you know what it’s like to live with witches?

The first time a boy/ stopped to kiss me, he looked at my lips outside a newsagents, and/ saw they were chapped to my teeth. In the snow behind him there was a witch/ in the park years later – they were there in the hog roast stands and the bend in the road, the devil’s elbow/ For years there was blood under my nails, and now it’s all drawn out, I’m full of organs but empty of blood.

Is there a way to explain that living in a valley makes you move/ to the shape of hills?/ A witch-home/ is a house made of soil, and built in the curve of /Pendle./ Like water, we move to the shape of the vessel, and some winters we freeze over.

A witch can be the hole, too. A witch can be the gap left in your ribcage, when the blood has run out. I kept a leech in a jar. A leech can be approximations of how far to run from one house to another, of using a steeple as an arrow to important ground, pointing down through the ivy and into rock-riddled earth. The fog throbbing out of an industrial chimney (just air, just air) – a witch we all know. In the hare that skittered around the garden for a week, and the time I scratched words into my skin, equivocations. Do you know what it’s like to live with witches?

Sophie Dickinson grew up in Lancashire, in the North-West of England, and now lives in East London. She is a freelance writer and journalist, but when she’s not hurriedly writing phone-note poems, she can be found collecting ceramics and wild swimming. 

photo by Catherine Avak (via unsplash)

She is Beautiful—Grace Safford

A woman in white robes stands by my bedside and says she must return to the earth. I open my eyes and know I am not dreaming.

I’d seen her before, this woman, in my mother’s garden, dancing between the rows of my neighbor’s harvest, painting her nails with lavender and her skin with honeycomb. Everyone in town knows her. She tends to our crops, fussing over corn knocked down in floods, digging at trees bored by foreign beetles, separating typha from wheat. When the grasses curl in the creeping heat, timothy and cogon, she is there when no one else dares to step outside.

We all know her. All day she skips in the footsteps of the farmers offering whispers of advice. She smells like thyme and everyone on the street can feel her in their throats when she dances. In the sun, it’s the foxtrot. In the rain, it’s the paso doble. In the mornings, we all watch as she bathes in the sun and watch again at night when she sheds her white robe and sinks into the loose dirt behind the alfalfa fields.

The first time we saw her step into the earth we thought she’d been lost to a sinkhole. The second time we knew she was meant to be there.

It has become a ritual for us, watching this woman from the corners of our eyes, through our windows. She makes us feel warm and whole when the sun touches her shoulders and content when she tucks herself in with us at night. From afar, we all think she is beautiful and kind and we like looking at her.

But before we sleep we say to ourselves that she can’t be real. That the ground has no woman, no mistress. No skin that can be pierced. We watch her from the corners of our eyes but say we’re looking elsewhere, somewhere. The neighborhood calls her the lady of the earth and pretend they don’t see her when they can hear her dancing.

Look but don’t touch. I waved and grinned at her once while she tried to save a tangle of trees from getting cut down, enchanted by her face, and already that was too much. My mother said the woman was like a stray dog—feed it once and it will never stop scratching at your back door.

Now, she stood at my bedside dripping loam on my floor.

“Waving boy. I’ve been trying to step into my dirt all night,” she says, brushing my forehead with mud. “It won’t open. I want to go to bed. Will you try?”

She is beautiful and kind and I like looking at her so I stand. I tell her she looks real up close.

The woman smiles with her eyes. She pulls me through my window and I feel like a bandit as she sings to the moon. Her hands are sticky with honey but I think I want to be stuck to them. We laugh and run and she teaches me how to do a box step across my mother’s garden.

Her patch of earth is just out beyond my neighbor’s alfalfa field—the hidden place where he swings his laundry to dry in hopes we won’t steal his clothes if they’re so close to her. She pauses to pick woodlice and cigarette butts from his greens before kneeling next to the small circle of loose dirt underneath his bed sheets.

We know this circle. The neighborhood boys often dare each other to touch the dirt with one foot. To them and their after-school games, it’s a rite of passage to brush the soil and walk away without falling into the earth. No boy in my neighborhood has passed on to manhood.

Our parents say it’s just a pile of mulch. The lady of the earth isn’t real, of course. They pretend they don’t see her when they can hear her dancing but watch her bathe in the sunlight and drop her robe at night.

The woman clears her throat and presses her hands to her circle. They look like my mother’s hands in her garden, warm with sand and stone but never reaching past her knuckles.

“Every time I place a hand on my soil it doesn’t move,” the woman says. “See? It should be passing through. The soil shouldn’t be this thick.”

Before I can move she grabs my arm and pulls it to her circle. I scream, fearful I’ll be the first boy to slip into manhood, only to hit the hard earth with a small thud. Both of our palms press against her soil, grasping at the dirt that looks looser than it is.

“There’s something wrong,” she whispers.

“I don’t understand,” I say, hoping our fingers will touch in the dirt.

She gathers her robes around her and looks across my neighbor’s fields. The woman snaps a molding branch from a tree and frowns. “Maybe it doesn’t recognize me,” she says, spreading her toes across her home. “We must help it.”

The woman pulls off her robes and runs through the alfalfa field. Under the purple of the sky the soles of her feet look as warm as daytime bleached in honey. Her gait is odd and untamed but she is beautiful and kind and I like looking at her so I kick off my shoes and go after her, practicing my box step with the rhythm of the cicadas.

I’d seen her do odd things in the moonlight before. In past harvests she would stand under our peach trees, waiting for them to shower her with their gifts while tapping out a jig on her legs. Spring became my favorite season. She hasn’t showered with fruit since the blight killed the trees two summers ago. I miss watching the peach juice flush her cheeks. Maybe now I can fall in love with alfalfa.

She laughs when she sees me running and says we must cover her. Change her taste. Move her body closer to the soil. She plucks apple leaves and rubs them over her eyes. I gather holly branches and twist them into her hair like my mother taught me to do in hers. The woman sings as we tear through my neighbors crops, tossing aside the rotting ones, robing her in grapevines and kale instead of cloth. We are people possessed, moved by the night and the smell of cut muhly. She teaches me the promenade as she rubs pollen on her knees.

“I wish I had a picture of you,” I tell her, looking at the green on her back. “A picture of this moment.”

She ruffles my hair and I smell like holly and grapes and she smells like thyme. I wonder if the neighborhood will see me dancing and think I am just a boy of the earth, a phantom with no shoes. What would it be like to not be real? The woman places seeds on her tongue and I make sure to tuck strawberries in my pockets.

“I am done,” she says, picking another cigarette butt and folding one last mint sprig behind her ear. “The soil will swallow me and know to plant me like one of its trees.”

If she were a tree, I think, she would be a willow, moving to the wind and too graceful to understand.

We run back through the alfalfa, wild with fruit. “Tomorrow I will teach you the tango,” the woman promises, pulling the neighbor’s clothes from the line and wrapping them around my shoulders. She kisses me on the cheek as quick as a bee sting before twirling on her toes and jumping into her circle.

Her feet sink down a half an inch before they stop. She digs in her heels, pressing until they are white, but her feet still don’t move.

We stay silent until she is so quiet I’m not sure if I can see her.

Finally she steps out of her circle and lies on the ground.

“You must look inside me,” she says, holding out a stick and stone. “There must be something wrong with me. It’s the only answer.”

She is beautiful and kind and I like looking at her so I crack her open. Her skin splits and her ribcage implodes. Inside, she is a field. Buckwheat protects her lungs and ivy twists around her bones. Where her stomach should be she grows barley in plenty. Her liver functions on the roots of rye. I want to reach inside of her and pull out a bouquet for my mother, but when my nose gets close to her body, I flinch.

On the inside she doesn’t smell like thyme. She smells like ash.

“Is there something wrong?” she asks, anchoring her heels at the edge of her circle.

I don’t answer. I run to my home and grab a flashlight and shine it inside of her. The grasses that seemed lush and green in the dark are burnt in the light. In the corner of her chest under her heart burns the last remnants of the wildfire that sparked in her stomach.

“You’re on fire,” I tell her. “You’re… dying.”

She lifts her head to peer inside of her. “I can’t be on fire. That’s not true.”

“You’re dying. There’s almost nothing left.”

She shakes her head. “That can’t happen, not to me. I am forever.” She pushes a fist under her heart, pulling from it a small head of clover.

We both watch as a bud of ember spreads across its three leaves, bending and wilting the clover before us until its head is bowed like it is ready to start a bolero. Its leaves fall one by one, burning in her hand.

We suddenly see it. Beneath the holly hiding her neck, beneath the pulp on her collar bones. The singed tips of her hair. The scabs on her lips. The cracks on her nails running all the way up to the decayed bed. The ash, so much ash, grey and layered, coating each fingertip. The things that had maybe been there the whole time.

“Oh.”

She drops the stem and looks up at me with her apple eyes. “I am ruined.”

I try and take her hand. “But you are still beautiful! Forget this. We can still dance in the moonlight one last time and it will be fun and beautiful and good. I am ready to learn the tango.”

She slaps my wrist so hard the dirt on my palm shakes off. “I am ruined,” she repeats. She looks out across my neighborhood, at the houses and parkways, at the clothing lines and stoops. “I am ruined,” she says again to the windows.

She closes her eyes. “Will you give me water?”

I step back. “Me? I’m just one person. I… I don’t think I have enough water for you, not in my house. Not alone.”

She touches my wrist, softly this time. “Please?”

All I can do is look at her face and wish I had a camera to remember her with. I settle for reaching inside of her ribs, taking an unburnt clover to keep at my bedside.

She tugs her robe around her, hiding the hole in her body. She begins to run, run away from me, abandoning the dance that usually takes hold of her feet. The pollen rubs off of her knees and the holly flies out of her singed hair as she starts to scream. “Water, I need water! Water! I’m on fire! Help! Please!”

But the neighborhood sleeps. They call her the lady of the earth and pretend she isn’t real. They pretend they can’t see her when they can hear her screaming. They turn their heads in their pillows and cover their ears with their hands and they sleep without a twitch or a stumble.

The woman runs all night, screaming, the honeycomb on her skin melting until she no longer glows.

In the morning, when they all rise to watch the lady bathe in the sun, all they see is smoke.

Grace Safford is a writer from a town in Northern Vermont so small cartographers sometimes confuse it for a lake. She’s passionate about gardening, feminism, whales, and wearing very ugly socks. You can find her work published or forthcoming in Ghost City Press, Twist in Time, Lucent Dreaming, Dear Damsels, and Corvid Queen. Currently, she is working on her first novel and an activity book.

photo by Kimmy Williams (via unsplash)

Brood Mare—Tim Goldstone

Remote hill country, once of prehistoric tribes; and even today still a land of buzzards, of sparrow-hawks, of drizzle-smoke, of wood, of stone, of bone, of a life for a life. 

Blood dries brown again on the crumpled sheet-nest. For the last time. Now she is prepared to take any risk, to pay any price.

Sudden shafts of low intense evening sunshine squeeze through storm-clouds where a mare stands gleaming under thunder-light. 

She wakes to tell him in the powdery-damp cottage dark, thick walls containing horsehair and lime, she saw their unconceived baby in a dream – as an old man on his deathbed, in this cottage, exhaling his last breath. She falls back asleep, contented, exhausted. She’d opened the bedroom window despite the hammering rain. He shuts it tight, crossly, always the smell of damp: the Welsh earth oozing up from under the floors she’d insisted he stripped back to flagstone. 

Long shining silver-green grass squeals in roughly tugging fingers as he rips it from the rich Pembrokeshire soil – feeds it to the mare with the flat of his callused palm. A soft nuzzling warmth from dilated nostrils.  

Wakes over her – a warm bead of sweat falls from his face onto her cheek, rolls down like a tear. 

He’d chucked the horse’s skull from the foundations into the skip.

Morning sun tugging excitedly at her, she releases a sundial from permanent shade; unchokes a pond; leaves alone the fireweed waving in the guttering; finds a lawn of straw-like tussocks; discovers honeysuckle, mint, creatures tumbling from rotting dog roses – petals falling at her touch. She squats – gathering lullabies and earwigs while petals land as softly as closing eyelids. 

No sound. A frog by the pond. A lizard slips into place on the sundial. A child not yet born leaps from tussock to tussock leaving in its wake an immaculate lawn. A spider  escorts its own elongated shadow across a wall.

She’d secreted shards of horse’s skull, ground them later using pestle and mortar, added water lilies, wishbones, mushrooms, roots, earwigs; boiled them all together in rainwater collected in thunder and lightning – cooking up a storm of her own in spells of summer rain.

She collects moths fluttering around the hurricane lamp, cupped hands caressed by shuddering wings, swallows them with a gulping and elongating of her throat, her chin thrust outwards, grimacing, her head thrown back, her breathing fast and shallow, eyes white. 

She watches him from the cottage – built on land that millions of years ago was under the sea. 

In eyeball-flexing wind the powerfully distilled light vanishes and moving her head sideways to keep him in her eye the mare backs away and in the humid summer evening he realizes spellbound he can see his breath as the storm arrives and the future and the past begin a conjured and ancient border embrace in front of his disbelieving eyes as rain drills exquisitely through a sheep’s skull and grass rushes up through its cathedral ruin of ribs and he is dead.

She sees shadows separate from birds of prey, flow down the sloping undulating fields towards the cottage, vanish through the stone walls protecting her where she sits waiting for the trembling to subside. 

She places the palms of her hands on her stomach. She smiles, the bargain complete.  

photo by Andreas / adege (via pixabay)

Three Poems—LE Francis

Knight of pentacles / Flutter

Tally the seconds like butterflies
drifting through an open window,
& watch as their easy flutter carves

open infinity to leave the entrails
sprawled across this unremarkable
kitchen table. Pick through it

with the end of a crochet hook
& sigh as you realize eternity
has left you out; think it wouldn’t

take much to snap & drag a prince
screaming through the veil, now
that you’re a witness to the gouging

& shredding so easily done by other
beautiful things — you felt the tissue
of time flap in the solar wind & you knew —

as the sparks burned through other todays —
that the cosmos would never sink to admit
they were wrong. Think you can’t keep

living in this copy of a copy, compose
your half-soul manifesto from guts
& butterfly wings & dream you see

the green grass dead, dream you watch
the cliff shrug off the lighthouse & still
you wait & breathe & speak in affirmation,

strain to hear the galloping break for you
as you correct from “I hope” to “I have.”

The moon / Long-distance love song

You feel what’s coming echo through the bones
of your bones. You feel it, even when it doesn’t

come, the lack of presence sinking a soft rest
between the moans of the night-black sea. You feel

it as a language of howls & knocks, the waves as persuasive
as ghosts that live in drawing room cupboards, the whole

time screaming as if in witness of her becoming & in the end
only you hear. Only you feel the truth eons deep & study layers

of dirt & dark & rise as a flicker in the void, all your knowing
woven through this blue-lit landscape. Wail the sea calm

& let the echo pass through the bones of the bones of the earth.
It is she that holds your darling close, your waning eye fixed

on the changing tides of the love
you cannot touch.

Strength / A daughter’s spell

Afternoons in ochre & the shuffle of skirts
passing the rooms, watch light play over ceilings
& trick yourself into seeing the sky. Endure

your captive life & dream of the many ways
you could someday be saved: carried out
in the summer arms of a minor god, or

a philosopher, or a musician — you’d better waste
with your pining, until you’re as delicate as a lyre
tucked under an arm in afterthought, or become

as bright as a harpsichord, easy to destroy & fussy
over any accompanying notes, lift your quill
& empty your belly, let all your pining pour

onto the page & wait for the winter fires to stain
the ceiling-sky dark. Each night, you’ll offer a page
to the flames & thank Zosma for its taking, watch

the lines deepen & the shadows swell, painting a face
in plaster & soot as you sigh & pass under,
evenings in indigo & the shuffle of cards heard

from the next room, keep an armchair next to the fire
& tell yourself again how you will survive to see the spring.

LE Francis is a recovering arts journalist writing poetry & fiction of varying length from the rainshadow of the Washington Cascades. Find her online at nocturnical.com.

photo by Daniel Albany (via pixabay)

A Small Eternity—Chip Jett

The first gift I received from my mother was a stuffed panda. The panda had been hers, she said, when she was a little girl. Its plastic nose hung by a thread, and many of its seams were resewn. It was worn, and loved, and it became mine. 

Four Leyland Cypress trees were brought as gifts, like the panda, to Mom’s funeral, and my grieving father left me to deal with them. He was lost without Mom, and her death came between us hard and fast, like the strike of a poisonous snake. Many things under his purview became mine: cooking, cleaning, and, eventually, planting the trees, which I did, at the back of our yard between the house and the woods. 

Two things happened after I planted the trees. First, they grew quickly. Within a year, the cypress tress had grown from the two-foot little bushes they had been into the twelve-foot beasts they are now. This rapid growth effectively created a wall between our house and the woods, with about a ten foot clearing between. We used to stare into those woods, Mom, Dad, and I. We would speculate on what manner of creatures lurked there. Ghosts? Goblins? Giants? Our imaginations gave life to the myths.

The second thing that happened with the planting of the trees was the haven it created for a near constant murder of crows. I watched the cypresses from the kitchen window, the way my parents and I used to watch the wood line now hidden behind them. Crows descended daily from the heavens, many at a time, and disappeared behind the cypress. Sometimes their chatter was loud enough to hear from the house, and I would wonder how many crows could fit into that clearing. 

And though I watched, day after day, I never saw the crows leave. 

Granted, I didn’t sit for hours on end. It’s possible – likely, in fact – that the crows came and went when I wasn’t looking. As some say cardinals are the spirits of loved ones passed on, I came to associate the crows with my dead mother. The sound of crows was constant, and it brought me some level of comfort. 

There’s a table carved from a single pine log by the window in our kitchen. Four log seats surround the table, though we ever only needed three. We used to sit on these stumps and eat our meals, when the family was still intact. I’m the only one who uses the table now. I don’t eat there, but I write or read or watch the crows. 

And so it was, one day, I sat at this table by the window. My father had left for the day without saying goodbye, which, for a year, had been his custom. I don’t remember what I was writing, but I remember what stopped me. The chattering crows, their constant conversation so common in the kitchen, ceased. It was as if some giant hand flipped a switch from ‘on’ to ‘off;’ the sound was there, and then it wasn’t. 

It was then I looked up and saw her. I caught only a glimpse, but she was unmistakable.  

My mother passed among the cypress, planted in her honor, branches of evergreen closing behind where she walked. She gave a quick ‘follow me’ glance over her shoulder and vanished. 

I did as she asked.

It was a cool November day, the Monday of Thanksgiving break. Though it must have been well past noon, frost still crunched under my feet. I left footprints where I walked, and so should have my mother. But there were none. 

I pushed through the branches my mother had used. Beyond was the clearing, between the cypresses and the woods. The little clearing was silent, which was odd, covered in crows as it was.

I’m not sure what I expected to see; my dead mother, of course. Certainly not a clearing full of silent crows. But the birds are what I saw.

The crows – more than I could count – stood together, as if waiting, and I suppose maybe they were; little else could explain their silent behavior. I walked to the center, and as I did, the birds cleared a path for me. And there, set purposefully in the middle of this space, by spirit or crow, was a tree stump, of the kind around our family table. I sat.

I waited for my mother’s cold, dead hands to fall on my shoulders, for her words to tell me the conflict with my father had gone on long enough. Maybe I waited for some other sort of peace. 

I sat there, with the crows and Mom’s ghost, for how long, I do not know. She spoke to me without words, loved me without condemnation. She knew of my pain at her loss. She knew, also, my pain at my father’s disconnection. So my mother did what a mother does, and she comforted me.

When at last she spoke aloud, it was as if the crows and the wind listened as well, for all was quiet. 

“Look around and you’ll see me,” I felt her say. “Listen, and you’ll hear.”

That was all she said.

The crows milled about, jumping here or there at one another, wings flapping out wide. Some scratched at the ground, some tugged at one another’s beaks at whatever meal had been unearthed. I only decided to leave when they did. 

As sudden as their cries had stopped, they resumed again. The sound became deafening, for there must have been hundreds of crows around me. With a piercing roar, they rose as one into the late November gray and left me alone on the stump of wood, thinking of my mother.

Somewhere in my life, I came to understand that crows will reciprocate a gift. Perhaps I gleaned this jewel from many readings of The Rats of Nimh, or maybe it’s something from conversations with Mom. Either way, before I left the clearing, I took the only object I had in my pockets – the pen I used earlier for writing – and placed it on the stump. I’m not sure what possessed me to do such a thing, but it was done, and I walked back home.

That night, I tried to speak to my father, but he only grunted and shrugged at my conversation. He closed his bedroom door when the sun went down and left me alone. 

In the morning, drinking coffee by the window, I watched a single crow fly into then out of the clearing behind Mom’s cypresses. I had only a moment to consider this oddity before my mother’s voice said in my ear, “Go and see.” I nearly fell off my seat twisting around for a look. But the house was empty, Dad having left with the sunrise. I looked back to the woods in time to see my mother, once again slipping between the Leyland Cypress and into the clearing beyond.

Once again, I did as she asked. 

I set my coffee down, pulled on a coat and hat, and went outside.

The morning was another cold, gray shroud over my house and yard. The cypresses ahead were veiled, and in the mist I saw my mother’s hands closing the branches behind her. I passed through, hoping to catch another glimpse, but instead, I found the clearing empty, save the stump situated at its center.

And on this stump was a gift. 

The gift was not the pen I had left for the crows. Instead, one of their number had taken my offering and had put, in exchange for the pen, the rusted tab of a soda can.

My heart leapt.

I stuffed the pop top in my pocket and looked around for my benefactor, hoping in vain a crow had waited to see my reaction. But none had. Neither had my mother, though I entertained the idea, for a while actually, that it was she who swapped gifts with me. I searched for the ghost, for the one who beckoned me from the house. I listened for her comforting words again, but only the wind whispered to me this day.

“The crows left me a gift,” I told my father, later, when he came home from work.

“Did you see your mother again?” he asked, because I told him about that as well.

“I did.”

He went to bed, without eating supper, and left me to think of what next to leave the crows.

Later that evening, I heard them descend with the night into the clearing. Their cries were loud, but not so loud as to rouse my father. I slipped on a housecoat and put the next gift into my pocket – a little button with a red heart on it. I don’t know how the button came to be mine, but it’s been pinned to my school bag for a couple of years now. As a gift for crows, the button would do; the heart on it was for my mother.

Though it was dark out, I saw her in the distance. She stepped between the cypresses, encouraging me onward in the darkness. When at last I placed the button on the stump, however, I was alone, and neither was she there the next morning when I went to see what new trinket was in its place.

I was not disappointed. The crows had taken my button and left a rusted nail, the kind in the shape of a horseshoe used to hold fencing in place. 

This dance went on for several days, and my collection of odds and ends grew: a coin and a paperclip, a seashell and a key. I loved each gift more than the one before, as each, somehow, brought me closer to my mother. 

And in turn, these little gifts brought me closer to my father. 

With each gift I received, my father’s interest grew. We guessed at the meaning, if any, behind the items. Were they random, or were they selected specifically for me? We speculated on the wonders of crows, and we reminisced about Mom. 

Slowly, over the course of many days, my father began to return to me. 

In June, Dad received a promotion at work, and we moved from the house and my mother’s Leyland Cypress. The night before we left, I placed a final gift on the stump in the clearing behind the trees: a ring made from twist ties collected from several loaves of bread. Though I wasn’t sure if my mother still haunted the trees, I spoke to her just the same. I thanked her for helping me deal with her loss, and for helping me find my father again.

The next morning, my father and I ate breakfast and watched the morning sun set the dew on fire. A single crow flew into the clearing, and I told my father I had one last thing to do.

A summer breeze rippled the cypresses, and it looked as if someone parted the branches before me. 

On the stump, in place of the ring I had left, a glass panda sat. It stood two inches high, and appeared hand carved. The little ears and nose were painted black, its belly white. It matched, in most every respect, the panda my mother had given me many years ago, except this one’s nose was intact.

I felt her warm hands on my shoulders and her voice in my ear. For a small eternity, I sat on the stump saying goodbye to my mother, and she said goodbye to me. The breeze died and the crow flew away.

I put the panda in my pocket and left the clearing to be with my father.

photo by Mabel Amber (via pixabay)