the trees move closer to the house each day, at first i could see the horizon, a thin line among the sky.
the manor is empty and dust clouds my throat, i search for water and instead i find a rat squeezing its way loose from the empty faucet.
i stare at him but let him go. we both do what we must to survive.
i roam the halls and stare out windows. there is an apple in an empty storage closet. i ate its rotten flesh and the worm inside. the hunger has grown to much to bear.
i swallow my shame. anger curls deep in my gut.
why did you leave me here?
(i am alone, i am lonely)
the trees are close enough to sing me to sleep. they keep me company outside my window
i shuffle decks of tarot cards and pull the tower from each one. ivy creeps up my walls to swaddle me in my sleep
i do not move off my bed, i long for my mother
(she left me here, she did this)
Paris Woodward-Ganz is an 18 year old poet and spoken word artist, and a sophomore at the University of Oregon. He’s an English major with a minor in Creative Writing. When not writing or speaking at open mics, he can be found watching Criminal Minds or working on editing creative writing submissions for his job at a local paper.
I reach under the sink and grab the bucket and rubber gloves, still slightly bloodstained from last month.
El appears behind me. ‘Gutters clogged again?’
I look up at her and nod. ‘Have you seen the goggles?’ I don’t want to get entrails in my eyes again when the pipe unblocks. Just our luck that Jenny’s shift is so messy. Emma down the street just goes into hibernation for hers. And Lou from Jenny’s year develops gills and disappears into the river for a day or two. No blood or guts or half-eaten carcasses for their parents to deal with.
When I head outside and climb the ladder to the roof, Jenny is sitting in the oak tree overhanging the house. She’s made herself a nest where she can roost half-hidden, beady eyes watching the world go by. Dried blood stains the branches below her, making the tree look like it has root rot. When Jenny was little, we hung a tyre swing from that branch, and I would push her back and forwards as she screeched with delight, soaring high into the air. ‘Look Daddy, I’m flying!’
‘Yes you are, my little bird!’ I’d shout back.
Yes. You are my little bird, I think now, looking up at my almost grown daughter. I swear her face is getting more angular each month – half bird, half wild girl, guts now dripping unceremoniously from her chin.
She watches me as I kneel and clear out the gutters, slowly filling the bucket with sinew and muscle and the occasional bone shard. I come across a leg bone – a rabbit maybe – and toss it into the flower beds to be buried later. My eyes drift over to the neighbour’s garden, realising I’ve not heard their pug yapping this morning. I look up at Jenny and she flaps her wings out and clicks her beak at me. We had the talk about neighbourhood pets three months ago.
There’s a noise from the street and Jenny’s neck cranes above her nest parapet, puffing out her green-black plumage so that it shimmers in the sun.
It’s only Dan, the postman, and the welcome sound of pug yapping follows as he does his rounds. ‘Morning Jay, lovely day,’ he says approaching the house.
I hold up my gloved hands. ‘Perfect for some spring cleaning!’
He nods and waves, puts our mail in the letterbox. Then his eyes land on Jenny and his smile fades a little. ‘That time already?’ He sighs. ‘I remember when it was Ayla going through it. Grow up so fast, don’t they?’ With that he tips his hat and heads off back down the street, a fixed expression on his face. Dan’s daughter Ayla left town last year. Actually, she ran off in her shifted form into the forest, and never came back.
After a few days, Jenny comes out of her nest. Baby feathers appear everywhere and anywhere as she moults, sticking around no matter how much we hoover. Her beak retracts, her wings unfurl into soft skin, and finally she comes down for breakfast looking tired, but mostly like herself again.
‘Have we got cereal?’ she asks.
No guts. Good. ‘Of course sweetheart.’ I pour her a bowl with milk, alongside a glass of fresh orange juice. A balanced diet is important.
‘Have you noticed Jenny’s been out more than usual?’ El asks me one evening.
‘She’s a teenage girl, she’ll be out with friends.’
‘Maybe we should set a curfew.’
I shake my head. ‘We’ve got to let her spread her wings,’ I say, a smile on my lips.
But El isn’t amused. ‘Eric from Number 11 said he found her in their garden trying to climb their apple tree.’
I shrug. ‘Maybe she was hungry.’
‘It’s spring. There aren’t any apples.’
Not the sort of hungry I meant. Eric’s cat often sits up there, watching the birds. ‘I’ll talk to her.’
El sighs and looks out the window into the garden.
‘Is there something else?’ I ask.
‘It’s probably nothing.’ She pauses. ‘You’ve not noticed something…different about her?’
‘Beyond the feathers and talons she grows every month?’
‘It’s the way she looks at us, her eyes all narrowed like she wants to…I don’t know.’ She shakes her head, hackles rising. ‘It’s nothing. I’m just over worrying. My claws are due.’
I act surprised and pretend I haven’t noticed the sharpening and lengthening of El’s fingers. Or the way she literally howled with laughter at the golden retriever video Jenny showed us yesterday. Or how she ripped the armchair cushion when she stood up a little too fast to go to bed last night. Tonight, she’ll likely sleep in the garden for a few days until she shifts back to normal. Some families’ shifts sync up, but so far Jenny’s and El’s haven’t. I remain thankful for the little things.
In the middle of the night, there’s a scream from Jenny’s room and I run through to her. She’s lying on the bed, writhing in distress. In the shadows I see the ruffle of feathers and her arm-wing outstretched. Surely it’s not that time again? I’m still recovering from her last shift.
‘It hurts,’ she says. ‘Make it stop.’
I pat her on the leg but find the roughness of talons beneath my fingers. I pull away. She’s never complained about it hurting before. Maybe I should take her to see the doctor again. When the shifts first began, we took her there, but they just told us that all girls go through it. It’s completely normal, nothing to worry about. If it gets too disruptive, they have a pill or a patch she could try, with only “limited side effects”, like anxiety and headaches and nausea and blood clots. But it’s expensive, and we figured what’s a bit of guts in gutters, and feathers on the sofa to deal with every month? Better to just let nature take its course. And eventually, the shifts should become less extreme. ‘It’ll pass in a few days.’
‘What if it doesn’t, and what if I don’t change back? Like Ayla.’ She opens her mouth, and a strange guttural noise comes from the back of her throat. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up. ‘And I’m so hungry,’ she continues. ‘And tired, and everything hurts and I’m just hungry! Why won’t it stop?’
‘Don’t worry sweetheart,’ I try to reassure her. ‘Let me help. What do you—’
‘No you don’t understand!’ she shouts, her voice different, strained. ‘I want Mum!’
‘Mum’s in the garden.’
Jenny lifts her head and lets out a long screech.
The pug next door starts yapping.
Next thing El is howling.
I try my best to calm Jenny down, but she’s crying now like a harpy, uncontrollably, sobs amidst shrieks and caws. Surely it can’t be that bad?
‘Do you need to go outside? Can I get you anything? A cup of tea? Biscuits? Paracetamol? Hot water bottle?’ But she won’t reply, she just pushes me away. El is still howling, and I put my hands to my head. This is too much. There must be an easier way. What did I do to deserve all of this?
On my way to check on El, there’s a knock at the front door. Flashing blue lights reflect in the windows. When I open the door, local police officer Patrick is standing on the porch. He pokes his head in and looks upstairs where Jenny is still screeching the house down. Then, there’s a clatter from the window opening, and I hear her talons tip-tapping against the roof as she retreats to her nest.
‘Had a noise complaint?’
‘Hi Patrick, sorry it’s—’
‘That time again?’
I laugh in an attempt to lighten the mood. ‘Yes. I’ll try to keep them quiet.’
He speaks into his radio. ‘False alarm. Just a shift-sync.’
‘How’s the family?’ I ask him as he scribbles something in his notepad.
‘I suspect you’ve some idea,’ he says, looking as tired as he sounds. He has three teenage daughters. ‘Rhea got her first shift last month. Scales and all. A real mess, especially when she ate Harry the Hamster whole. Held a funeral in the garden with an empty shoebox, poor thing. The girls were beside themselves.’
I nod. ‘She’ll learn to control her impulses,’ I say. ‘Just takes time.’ I look behind me to the back door. El’s howling has become more high-pitched, agitated. The neighbour’s pug is scraping wildly at their back door.
And then, suddenly, silence. A still, disconcerting quiet as the night air chills. Patrick senses it too and he steps into the front garden and shines his torch down the street. I pull my coat off the hook and follow. He wanders round the edge of the house and shines the light at Jenny’s nest. But she’s not there. I turn around just in time to see the swoop of a giant bird, wings illuminated by the blue lights. She’s heading straight for us, eyes hungry, talons outstretched.
Look Daddy, I’m flying.
previously published in Mslexia’s Best Women’s Short Fiction 2021 (2021)
Lyndsey is an Edinburgh-based author of strange and speculative fiction, with work published in several magazines and anthologies, including Dark Matter Magazine, Shoreline of Infinity, and Orion’s Belt. She’s a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Awardee, British Fantasy Award Finalist, former Hawthornden Fellow, and a Ladies of Horror Fiction Writers Grant Recipient. Her debut novelette “Have You Decided On Your Question” is published in April 2023 with Shortwave Publishing. Find her on Twitter as @writerlynds or via her website www.lyndseycroal.co.uk.
photo by Chris Sabor and Vita Leonis (via unsplash)
In the storm, there are two boats. Each is alone. Each exists as the sole survivor of the storm. Each is tossed by the waves while deepness swells all around. In one boat, the Lantern Child huddles, her glass hands shaking. She protects the flame that burns in her chest and keeps her warm. In the other boat, is her counterpart, the other side of the equation: Great Lady Afterimage in all her furs and finery. How did she get here — this great lady worshipped all over the world? She is history and glory and regret, and she is holding on for dear life in this storm. Thunder funnels through a gap of cloud. Rain falls down and down. One boat dips below, the other rises above. As always, only one exists. The wind is blowing. Great Lady Afterimage cries out. She calls to the Lantern Child, but there is no response. She does not exist. The Lantern Child shouts and shouts. There is no one. She is the only one who exists. Within her, the flame glimmers, it burns.
Now zoom out. Look over the storm as it begins to lose its strength. It huffs. The wind sighs. The great eye remains, not yet closed. Within the eye only one thing exists, only one thing survives: the light, the image, and the image of the light.
Portia Yu lives in Hong Kong where she writes poems about dreams, memories, and unstable realities. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Worm Moon Archive and celestite poetry.
The fairy walks, humming a simple tune. The sun shines through the leaves to trace patterns along roots, glittering on stems of grass.
And yet, the fairy halts every now and then to glance into the shadows lurking by the side. There are monsters there, she knows—
she’s encountered them before. Tall, with gleaming eyes and broad teeth, and large hands to sprinkle salt over the fairy path—
salt that is pure, salt that is clean, that the fairy must count every grain or never take another step.
The monsters are clumsy, breaking every branch in their way and crunching leaves underfoot, but they outpace her every time. Down
come the hands, sprinkling their grains of salt, and the fairy stops. One, two, three, she counts, and the monster laughs till that is the only sound echoing,
echoing in the fairy’s head. One, two, three, she counts again, and the monster’s footsteps sound like thunder as they wander away.
But the salt remains, and the silence echoes more than their laughter did. One, two, three, the fairy counts, more forceful than before. Four, five, six—
a branch cracks farther down the path, and the fairy looks up, then back down— and she’s lost track again.
One, two, three, she counts. Till there are no more grains left to count.
Olivia Elle graduated from Emerson College in 2020, and from Johns Hopkins University’s Master’s program in 2022. A writer of both fiction and poetry, her work has been published in Generic, ArLiJo, Dodging the Rain, Tupelo Quarterly, and Crow & Cross Keys. Her poem “The Gay Experience: F for Faith, F for—” was a semi-finalist for the 2021 Gival Press Oscar Wilde Award. Olivia herself can be found on most social media sites @OliviaElle98.
It was that hour just before dark when the long oppressive stretch of the day wore itself into the forgiving twilight, that time when all things existed at once, when she was both very old and very young (and she was, after all, both very old and very young). It was the time when storytelling stopped being storytelling and became memory, and when memory stopped being memory and became storytelling. It made the garden lush and wild in possibility; the long twists of roses and unhindered vines reached across broken walls and tumbled down what might have once been paths. It was a beautiful wild place that had grown wild and beautiful out of long-held spite. Overlooking a mossy green basin that might once have been a pool, the horns of a stone satyr scraped out of a dense tangle of trees. Although it was hard to see her, a girl sat by its feet. She was eight, maybe ten, maybe twelve in the right lighting, her elbows muddy and feet bare. She curled herself against the base of the satyr, right in the groove of its pedestal where the stone rippled with an old injury long since scarred over.
She didn’t do much, because there wasn’t much left to do. She’d done it all by this point, many times over. She’d read every book in the library, before the library had given itself back to the garden too. She’d watched every movie in the collection until she’d worn out the discs, and the power had long since gone, anyway. There used to be people to talk to down the road, but no one lived in the stretch of big glass mansions anymore, and they’d built them so far out of town for a reason. She did leave, sometimes. She walked down the long cracked asphalt driveway and kept walking until she hit something she’d never seen before, but she always found herself back at what remained of the house she’d been born in.
It was that hour just before dark that was worse than the dark itself, when the shadows of things stretched their long fingers at you and twisted around your ankles and turned the familiar wrong. At least the dark was decisive. In this half-light, the garden existed in duplicate. There was the trellis as she knew it in the daylight, there it was twisted into something bent, just slightly. The pool off the terrace was too deep and too long and too still and too round and something hollow swam in it where the last rays of sunlight hit the surface. The roses looked sepia and the lilacs dark blue, and everything was there—it was all there—but it was bad, it was off, it was wrong.
It wasn’t a nice garden, even in the daytime. The sunlight hardened its hardest edges; it was a trees and thorns garden, the wildness pruned out of it until the wildness fought back. The hedges were stern and straight, and the flower patches walled by brambly roses. It was a garden built by a man who wanted to tell people he had a garden, not to have a garden. It was as sensible and welcoming as everything else in the house, which was about as sensible and welcoming as a taxidermied stag (of which, of course, the house had several).
And in that horrible, unwelcoming garden at that horrible, unwelcoming hour, a man in a pinstripe suit lay crumpled at the foot of a stone satyr.
Ivy wouldn’t see the man, but she would see the yellow-grey outline in the grass the next morning where his shape had worn it bare. She had never seen her father weak before, and that wouldn’t start now.
She wouldn’t see the way he stretched his arm towards the statue’s outstretched foot, wouldn’t see the way he clawed at its base, but she would find the five long gouges in the marble.
It was that hour just before dark and a man in a pinstripe suit lay crumpled at the foot of a statue, and he lay crouched at the foot of a statue, and he stood face to face with the statue, and he was nowhere to be found. In that indeterminate hour before dark, he was all of those things, and he was none. The garden was many things at once, and so was he, and in the version of it all where he could hear the statue and the statue could hear him in return, something spoke, and something listened.
Ivy saw none of this because she was in her father’s study, a place she was explicitly not allowed to be. During working hours on the dayshe hadn’t taken one of his flashy silver cars to the office, her father set up residence there, bolting the door tightly shut behind him. The door fit perfectly flush with the floor and the frame, not so much as a crack for light beneath it, and it had no keyhole for her to peep through. If she sat just outside it with her back to the wood, she could hear the echo of pacing inside, the occasional clatter of a keyboard, and a low murmur that sounded like her father’s voice, but she could never make out the words. The study was up three stories, at the end of a long hallway as sensible and welcoming as the garden, and she could just nearly see inside its window if she climbed the magnolia tree out back. It wasn’t a very good view or a very good climb, and if she stepped just wrong the branch would give beneath her, and she’d end up in a heap of bruised petals and bruised shins. If she angled it just right, though, and didn’t step just wrong, and her father hadn’t shut his blinds, she could see the glow of light against red walls, a row of bookshelves, and the silhouette of a man pacing, pacing, pacing.
And, because there was no keyhole, the door stayed unlocked when he was gone. Ivy didn’t think she was supposed to know this: she knew that she wasn’t supposed to be wandering the house unattended, that closed doors meant forbidden, and that she wasn’t supposed to go into her father’s study. But it was so very easy to slip away during her parents’ big fancy dinner parties, when the cold of their marbled foyer turned hot with so many wealthy, well-dressed people and their overlarge glasses of dark red wine. She wasn’t very big, and she couldn’t very well talk about international shipping or how the potential collapse of the stock market would tank the global economy or what that one anchor on the news was wearing last night, how dare she. At most, her parents paraded her around awhile to show off how cute and polite and look, how clever, she was before turning back to the houseguests in their sheath dresses and sensible hosiery.
No one would notice then if she, say, grabbed a fistful of cocktail shrimp and ran up the back staircase and down that long, unfriendly hallway. Even all the way up here, she could hear the echoes of the party downstairs: nattering conversation, a man’s booming laugh. The door to her father’s study was heavy and displeased with being opened, but after Ivy shoved her whole shoulder against it, it gave in without much fight. She tumbled in, cocktail shrimp still in hand, and landed on a threadbare oriental rug. The door swung shut behind her immediately, and then it was just her alone in her father’s study: small, wood-paneled, a wall of bookshelves, a desk taller than she was strewn with crumpled papers, thick drapes around the narrow window.
She did this whenever her parents hosted one of their corporate dinner parties, and they hosted their corporate dinner parties several times a month. She’d started it a year ago, when she first really realized that there was an entire room in her home that she had never seen inside of. She’d known her father had a study, of course; she’d seen him go up the stairs and down the hallway and disappear, but she hadn’t thought to question it. She’d been young then; she hadn’t realized that the somewhere he went was somewhere she could go too, but somewhere she had never been, and somewhere, when she asked, she was told she couldn’t go.
She knew the dip of the floor beneath her by now, knew where she fit perfectly against the grooves of her father’s desk, knew that if she looked between the gaps in the shelves just so she could see into the party downstairs. Ivy didn’t know what her father did for a living, but she knew it involved a lot of old books and expensive ties. He used fancy pens, too, and covered the pages on his desk in a furious purple ink that she couldn’t read. They’d tried to teach her cursive in school, but she’d never been any good at it. She’d never been able to make out the titles of the books on his shelves, either. There were the encyclopedias and the dictionaries and the tidy row of popular crime novels, but there were also other, older books, cloth- and leather-bound and oddly-sized. It wasn’t that they were unusually small, exactly, or that they were unusually big, they were just the wrong size. They didn’t fit on the shelf somehow, even though they fit on the shelf just fine. It was all a little crooked, even though it was all neatly aligned. She was sure they had titles on their spines, but Ivy had never been able to read them. When she tried, they cracked and swam like the words on his desk, a cursive angry at her inability to read it.
She popped a shrimp in her mouth, throwing the tail into the bin beside her father’s desk, and traced a finger across the ink. It was tacky to the touch, like it was recent and barely set, but her finger came away dry. Not so much as a smudge.
This was a game she liked to play: how far could she get before they noticed; how deep could she go beneath her father’s skin until she found something more than fancy suits and fancy wines. It was here, she knew that. No one cared about nothing, she knew that. The walls and floor of the study pulsed, the heartbeat of the house thick and steady in her ears. She couldn’t know it, but it matched her father’s heartbeat: strong, unchanging, mechanical. And then it spluttered and it hiccupped. Ivy jumped, dropping the last of cocktail shrimp on the desk, and she knew they would stain the wood and papers with a wet thud.
Below it, a curl of purple bled out beneath its tail. The strange angry cursive distorted into a watery scar; her father’s spidery handwriting washing away. It was a disproportionate response for such a small spot of moisture, as if the ink in the paper had collectively decided to up and run. It was clearly angry at the violation—how could someone so small and so careless do something so small and so careless? This was a room of precision. Every line on those pages, as inscrutable as they’d been, was specific, built on the last and the first, tangled in a carefully-constructed chain.
Ivy could not read what the papers said because the papers were written in a language everyone except the earth and her father had forgotten. If she could, she would have seen that they were contracts like the ones he talked about in offices and at dinner parties. A negotiation: one thing in exchange for another, we agree to these terms, this is a fair exchange of goods, we will uphold this agreement
If Ivy could have read the papers, which she couldn’t because she didn’t speak the language of trees and wild things, she would have seen that this contract was a simple one written by a cunning businessman. He would get the better end of the deal, and he’d trick the poor sucker on the other end into thinking he’d walked away with the lottery.
She would have seen that this one she’d ruined was the last in a long series, the most carefully structured of the bunch. It was a dazzling feat of magic and manipulation; it was the result of a man years practiced in the craft. A man who had learned to speak the ancient earth fluently, but in the way of a learned speaker, not a native, with a careful control of its grammar and fluctuations, but no understanding of its soft edges, its metaphors. Her father did not speak the poetry of it, only the business. It was a little like using French to write an airport thriller: technically correct, but a waste.
Ivy knew none of this, because she spoke none of this, and she didn’t even know that she didn’t. She only knew that she’d broken something irreparable because the stone foundation of the house she’d been born in told her so.
Outside the window, where she couldn’t see even if she’d looked, her father lay crumpled beneath the foot of a stone satyr.
She wouldn’t know that anything was wrong until she saw it in hindsight. Her father was more unpleasant than usual the next morning, not so much as a good morning when they crossed paths in the kitchen. He didn’t admonish her for her stack of toaster waffles, higher than her head. Her mother was nowhere, but her mother was never anywhere. She was a peripheral sort of mother, the kind who appeared in the evenings in glamorous earrings and thick lipstick before vanishing again for days at a time. Ivy would see in her in the empty wine glasses leaving rings on the side tables, or a ghost of perfume wafting up the stairs, but her mother, her flesh-and-blood-and-solid-bone mother, had left a long time ago, and then it was just Ivy in that house with the cold of her father.
In the way he had wanted to be someone who said he had a garden, not someone who had a garden, her father had always been someone who wanted to say he had a child, not someone who had a child. She was most useful to him as a pretty little doll at those dinner parties, where his coworkers could coo over her curls and pinch her cheeks and say she was so sweet, so well-spoken, so charming. They would then, realizing that he was human too after all, make the deals he’d brought them there to make. When she’d gotten old enough and tall enough to see their shark-toothed smiles, she’d started to understand what he’d been doing, and she was almost willing to play along.
After that evening in the study, when she’d felt her father’s heartbeat stop (and, later, start again a half-measure out of time), she thought she saw him staring at her curiously, or maybe it was hungrily. Maybe, for a moment, she thought, he’d finally seen her as something alive. Sometimes, when she was sure he didn’t know she was looking, she’d catch him smiling at her from down the long hallway, a whisper of something alive in his eyes. Proud, even.
And then he’d come into full focus and it would be gone again.
She wouldn’t know that anything was wrong until her slip of a satin dress mother didn’t reappear at the next dinner party, or the next, and the house began to smell of floor wax and linen instead of the floral spice of her perfume. She wouldn’t know that anything was wrong until her doctor told her that she had stopped growing, that she should have been an inch taller than she was this time last year, and her father’s hair streaked silver while her cheeks stayed baby-soft. It frightened her, and it thrilled her. Because the stunting of it snuck up on them in retrospect, they’d bought her party trick shelf life a little extra time. Ivy had always hated those cold, boring, dizzying dinner parties, but she found some kind of pleasure in the golden glow of it. She was a trophy like the taxidermied stags frozen forever at their moment of murder, empty mouths open, glass eyes wide.
The next time she snuck away into her father’s study, the heartbeat in the walls was still. The desk was bare. The bookshelves were emptied out; even the atlases and crime novels were gone. She could hear his laugh grating through the walls, but she found nothing of him in this little dark room. There were old pages in the bin beneath his desk; the purple ink had faded to something almost green, and the paper had gone a horrible slimy pinkish-yellow. She had the feeling that she could read it now if she tried hard enough, but she didn’t want to. Looking at those pages made her sick. Something corrosive writhed beneath her skin. It was the first time she’d felt it, but it was familiar, and she instinctively knew it wouldn’t be her last. The pages smelled of flesh and burning and of her mother’s perfume, and Ivy left them there to rot.
When she saw it again months later, the doorframe just as tall and her footsteps just as light, the ruined contract would still be in the bin exactly as rotted as it had been that last time, no more and no less.
They said she’d maybe just hit puberty and stopped growing early, but she knew she hadn’t. Although she knew very little of what it meant to grow up, Ivy knew it was supposed to feel like something. Her clothes were supposed to fit differently, her body was supposed to tell her it was time. The idea that one day she might see herself in the heavy mirror above the bathroom sink and be someone else entirely terrified her in the abstract, but it never happened. She became a well-worn photograph, not a living thing, and, she would come to realize, she could get tired of familiarity. She lost hours studying her face for signs of change: new freckles in the summer, an outbreak of acne, any sort of lines and marks of a life lived. Anything.
But there was nothing. There would always be nothing. The doctors didn’t know what to say, because this was not supposed to happen, and nothing in their training had prepared them for a girl who had a full set of adult teeth ready and waiting to push out the rest of the younger set, but never did. She stopped going to the doctor.
Her father’s smiles from the edges of hallways turned into the wrong kind of warmth: the steely, burning kind. Jealous conflagration, not the warm embers of a hearth.
(It wasn’t just that she had broken his contract, it was that she’d taken it for herself. An accidental addendum reshaping a clause in the moment of trade, confusing the business of it. She’d rewritten the legalese instead of rendering it all null and void. It had gone incontrovertibly wrong. They couldn’t try again.)
Her father pulled her out of school once it was clear that she wasn’t growing in time with her classmates. Without the shadow of her mother to tell someone to homeschool her, he just left Ivy to wander on her own. He stopped trotting her out at parties; he stopped leveraging her accomplishments for business connections. Why try to raise a child who’d already grown up as much as she ever would?
Time hardly passed for her, because she had an infinite stretch of it. They figured it out eventually, but her father wouldn’t put it in so many words. He barely spoke to her at all anymore. It could have been every third Tuesday or every third year when he did, and it was usually just to tell her to remember to brush her hair, or didn’t she know not to eat ice cream for breakfast.
He grew very old and she grew very old and she stayed very young. The smaller he became, the whiter his hair turned, the lower his shoulders hunched and the skin beneath his jaw hung loose, the less he seemed to hate her.
“Ivy, my girl,” he’d say. “Where’s your mother?”
“Ivy, my love,” he’d say. “How was school today?”
In moments of clarity, which became rarer every day or week or month or year, he’d apologize. The best years were sometime halfway between the start and the end, when he was just soft enough to speak to her but clear enough to still make sense. I didn’t mean to do this to you, he’d say. I didn’t want this to happen. Or I should have known better. What he didn’t say, but what Ivy heard in his rattling breaths, was that he hadn’t meant for this to happen to her. Maybe he regretted finding what he’d been looking for entirely. Maybe he just regretted that she had gotten it instead of him. If she was feeling especially forgiving, she liked to think that he was sad she’d never have graduations, a wedding, children, a corner office in his metal-and-glass skyscraper downtown. If she wasn’t, she thought he would have rather outlived her. He was ashamed that she’d seen him become weak and fragile, because he wasn’t made to age and decay. He was a man who had hedged in nature until it stood straight and cold; he’d pruned away the wildness until the wildness fought back.
He never told her what, exactly, he’d done that day, and she stopped going back to his study where the papers made her nauseous and weak. There was the unspoken agreement that he was, in fact, an excellent businessman and experienced in the sorts of contracts she’d broken. It had been a perfectly sensible bargain, trading off his wife, bit by bit, so that they had this house, the beautiful cars that sat untouched in the garage, the fancy dinner parties and the expensive ties and the peripheral slip of a mother who had eventually been swallowed up on the edges. He’d asked for one thing too many, and his goodwill had worn thin enough that all it took to break it was a curious careless child and a cocktail shrimp. The unwilded wildness his stone satyr guarded had been pruned to the wick and couldn’t go any further before it snapped back.
She, of course, outlived him. She would outlive everything now except, perhaps, the wildness that had made her. He wasn’t a young man when he died, but his life felt very small to her. He had been a very small man all along; she knew that now. Even a man as grandstanding and wealthy and well-dressed as he had been was nothing against the great impossible swell of nature. He’d wasted his life thinking he had contracted it and conned it into submission. (Of course, he’d gotten it backwards.)
She wanted to bury him at the foot of the satyr or toss the splintering cocoon that had been her father into his horrible swimming pool, now thick with algae. The lawyers put him in the family plot across town. Her mother should have been there alongside him, but they had all long since forgotten her. They weren’t sure she was dead because they weren’t sure she’d ever existed.
Ivy stayed in the house.
She left, but she came back, and every time it was older and smaller than before, and every time she was exactly the same. It would eventually blow off in the wind, and she would still be here.
It was that hour just before dark when the long oppressive stretch of the day wore itself into the forgiving twilight, that time when all things existed at once, when she was both very old and very young (and she was, after all, both very old and very young). It was the time when storytelling stopped being storytelling and became memory, and when memory stopped being memory and became storytelling. It made the garden lush and wild in possibility; the long twists of roses and unhindered vines reached across broken walls and tumbled down what might have once been paths. It was a beautiful wild place that had grown wild and beautiful out of long-held spite. Overlooking a mossy green basin that might once have been a pool, the horns of a stone satyr scraped out of a dense tangle of trees.
Ivy sat at its feet.
There was nowhere else to go.
Claire Schultz holds a BA in English Literature & Creative Writing from the University of Chicago and an MPhil Education (Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature) from the University of Cambridge. Her fiction has been published in Crow & Cross Keys, Press Pause Press, Electric Spec and Pigeon Review, among others. You can find her at clairerschultz.com, or making a fool of herself on Twitter @anotherclaire.
In my town, there is a park where women disappear.
I always thought Watershed Park to be lovely, with large oak trees that dripped leaves into a pond lit by oil lamps from a time long ago. My mother would take me there, holding my hand as I tried to run through the woods. It’s a confusing place, she said, one could easily be lost beneath the canopy of trees.
When I grew older, I realized that it was not me who should have heeded my mother’s warning. On the night before I became a woman, she left to take a stroll through Watershed. It was an odd time to walk—the sun had long been swallowed by the horizon and clouds had subsumed even the brightest stars in the sky. My mother was a brave woman, and a little darkness was not enough to scare her. We were accustomed to this weather in our town, but the inky black of that night was not even punctured by a breeze.
Still, she left.
I watched my mother go, the door to our home closing shut behind her. I remember her hair was tied in a loose knot at the base of her neck, a few strands out of place. A small purple flower was tucked into the knot, and I found myself transfixed by this small detail. This should have struck me as a sign, for my mother was not allowed to be unkempt. But I was young and disturbed by my mother leaving for what I now know was the first and last time.
The next morning, my father and I found her hair pins by the pond in Watershed Park but not her body. I suppose he raged and screamed and threw the pins into the water to teach her a lesson, but I was the only one who was learning.
The years passed on slowly after my mother’s disappearance. More women followed after her, and I discovered that she was not the first one to vanish, nor the last. It was always in the night when women would leave. Sometimes accompanied by a storm so as to mask the latching of the door behind them, sometimes in easy skies, when their husbands slept off the alcohol from the previous hours.
The days after the women would leave were the worst. Their husbands’ anger would ignite, the sparks singeing anyone who came too close. The walls would splinter beneath their pounding fists, food would go rotten, and babies left unfed. Life would eventually continue with the daughters and sons filling the role their mothers left. But soon the sons would leave too.
It was just me and my father, alone in the house after my mother left, and I was no longer permitted to walk through Watershed Park. If I tried, the sky would not be the only thing to darken.
Yet I still found myself drawn to Watershed. Drawn to the golden glow of its lamps, to the way the rain pooled on paths through the trees. When I walked the perimeter of the park, the only child with enough curiosity to do so, I saw not the wilting wildflowers that dotted our town but flowers in bloom, fresh and colorful. It struck me as beautiful that the lilies and fireweed could thrive in Watershed when there was so little light everywhere else in our town. But my favorite flower was one we called Farewell-To-Spring.
It was an elegant purple color, with bits of red floating around the edges of the petals. The Farewell-To-Spring was the flower my mother had worn in her hair the night she left us, and I always looked for it when I visited the park. I found it growing near the wrought-iron fence that had been erected by the husbands of our town to keep their daughters and wives out of Watershed.
The flower’s petals poked through the bars, and I loved to admire the flashes of red that danced across its purple surface. I imagined that my mother loved the Farewell-To-Spring too. That she was also drawn to the flecks of red on the flower, that she saw something inside herself reflected in that color.
By the time I was a woman, my father was eager to be rid of me. There was to be a marriage between me and a man of another town. The man was twenty-two years my senior with twenty-two times our savings.
As the day of the union approached, I found myself wandering often to Watershed. The man I was to marry had looked at me with greed, and this frightened me as I was not a woman with wealth.
On the night before my wedding, the sky was still and dark. There was no moon and no stars. As I lay in my bed, I could hear the sounds of my father with his friends, hollering into the night and tempting the Devil to come out and play. But I also heard something else: the creak of an iron gate opening, beckoning. I untied my hair from its plait while I walked to Watershed. I plucked a Farewell-To-Spring from the fence before I entered the park and tucked its stem behind my ear. Its petals tickled my face, and I smiled wide and true. There was a clang that sounded through the night, and I knew the gate had locked behind me.
I pretended that my mother was with me once again as I walked through Watershed, holding my hand as we picked a path through the trees. Careful, she told me, one should easily be lost beneath the canopy of trees. The lights of the lamps flickered as I moved through the wood. Soon the pond came into view.
I sat at its bank and picked the petals from the Farewell-To-Spring, throwing them into the water one by one. My mother’s voice sang a quiet song from the depths.
It called to me, if only softly.
Sophia Carlisle is an undergraduate student at the University of Arizona. She enjoys wistful stories of all kinds and has a particular soft spot for the ghosts we let linger.
There was a light upon the rock where the tower stands empty now and faeries nest in the hollow lens, farrowing like sows.
There was a light and ’twas well kept by the man who marked the lee, bright as the moon on a cloudless night slung low above the sea.
Many the man it kept from the cliffs and sent home safe to the docks while the young of the merfolk, will-o’-the-whisped, were dashed against the rocks.
All through the night, where the great house stood, the grieving mothers wept for the little ones who chased the moon straight into the sun of death.
But the brokenness of a woman’s heart is a sweet song to a man— a red stain in the water spreading up to where he stands.
Some say he fell from the balcony, but in truth he took the stairs to where wringing hands in a moonless night caught him unaware.
They found him there when the oil ran out, and another man was sent, but thus it was with every one, and so it always went.
And now in darkness lies the rock; still sits the reflector dish. And on moonless nights, the moon escapes on the backs of the silver fish.
Reyzl Grace is a transfemme Ashkenazi poet, essayist, and librarian working in both English and Yiddish. Her writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and appears in Rust & Moth, So to Speak, Maenad, Limp Wrist, and elsewhere. She can be found in the mastheads of Cordella Magazine and Psaltery & Lyre, as well as at reyzlgrace.com and on Twitter @reyzlgrace.
The tree has caved in the front of the house and nestles, now, between the large front windows—broken water pipes gushing around the trunk. A giant’s skull caved in; the murder weapon lodged in its cranium. It had fallen with such ease, in the end, as though standing tall had grown too much to bear. Collapse was a relief. The house stands at the end of the track, high on the cliff, overlooking a small, curved bay with a sandy beach. There are no lights on. Nobody lives here, though sometimes people stay.
The winds that caused the damage have eased. They still blow, gusting petulantly and knocking birds from nests. Every now and then a stone will fall. Black slate scurrying down the cliffside to the sand below. But it is not like it was. The gale doesn’t howl like a wolf pack, doesn’t chase small creatures to ground and winnow through their burrows, freezing their bones. The rain doesn’t lash against the dunes, peeling away the layers until the roots of the grasses stand exposed, naked against the storm. The body of a seal lying between the rocks rests in a rockpool stained with blood. The damage is done, the dead are awake, and now a dull peace reigns. What weather remains picks irritably at the wilderness. Bored. So, when the twin lights swing round the head of the track it is as though the whole valley cranes its neck to see its visitor. Silver and boxy like a tugboat but silent and fast the vehicle slides up the narrow track. No fumes, no engine growl or parting waves, it creeps towards the house like a predator. It rolls to a stop in front of the house anticlimactically, disappointed to find its quarry dead. A shard of a door opens and from behind black glass a man steps out, a frown on his face and voices in his head.
“Hi, It’s Steve, look – hello? Sorry, I’m at the house, the signal’s bad. It’s a mess, that big tree fell, yeah, clean through. Can you call the contractors? Thanks. Look, I’ll ring you back later. Cheers.”
Steve taps the side of his head, and his frown deepens. He moves towards the remains of the house and his grey suit ripples against the wind. It is not a fabric suited to the country; the breeze blows right through raising goosebumps on his skin. He pushes his way through a side door, the wood caught in the frame that has warped with the weight of wood lying above it. Steve moves with confidence. Seemingly unconcerned that the tree might shift, that he might be the next to shoulder its weight.
With the front of the house gone there is no impediment to watching eyes, no reason not to pry, no need to be invited in. Steve takes out a rectangle of polished obsidian and taps at it as he moves through the rooms. He pauses over sheets of cracked black glass, dark mirrors that hang in every room and almost all broken. On windowsills and bookshelves shells sit. The carcases of anemones and bottles of coloured sand that do not come from the beach below—that smell of different seas. In the kitchen, he picks carefully over the shattered remains of glasses and plates. A rectangular box glows with a white-blue light, humming as the bottles inside discharge wine over the floor. Steve seems particularly upset at this
“Fucking hell. What a mess.”
Steve has problems. He’s restless. In need of help. He mops at the floor with a clean white towel which absorbs the wine like blood into bandages. He picks up a pillow from the large bed and then places it back down. Lifts shards of the black mirrors and holds them up to the light. He seems suddenly unsure of himself and rushes to the large glass door that overlooks the sea, somehow still intact. Sliding it back he steps onto the wooden deck of a balcony that hangs over the beach. It creaks as he steps on it. The metal struts bolted to the cliffside groan under the weight.
He ought to heed the warning.
Instead, he walks to the edge, leans over the rail and takes in great lungfuls of salted air. There is a gust as the wind picks up again and the scent of the beach at low tide fills him. The smell of seaweed on the turn, limpets with imperfect seals and rotting flesh beneath. He gags. His eyes are wild, his hair blown out of its crisp perfection and his tie flaps free in the wind. The metal and wood creaks again and this time he listens, snaps free from the spell, and moves quickly back inside sliding the glass door shut against the howling gale.
This plan would be wonderful were there a front to the house. As it is, it only takes a moment for the wind to find him again and it taunts him with tidewrack, with the stench of the sea—it is a beautiful smell, to some—Steve retches, and leaves through the side door and walks through the garden to a smaller house. The house that was here when he bought it. That’s the way of it, around here. See a place. Buy a place. Buy a small home and make it bigger. It happens all the time.
This house has stood for three centuries. This house has weathered the storms. Its name etched in neat type onto the small slate plaque.
The Toll House. A place to pay your dues.
He lets himself in, passing through walls three feet thick made of heavy granite blocks and stuffed with lime. Amongst other things. Bottles with pins in. Withered hearts. Things to keep the outside out, the inside in. He pauses in the doorway and shudders. Shrugging off the wind. The door closes with a snap, and he’s gone.
The next morning and the weather is worse. The wind has woken cruel and cold, and plays with the iron latch of the Toll House. The door opens and Steve emerges. He looks better than he did. He appeared briefly, in the night, to salvage a bag from his vehicle and now he is dressed a little better than before. Though the waxed coat he wears could do with some years on it. Could do with a little bit of wearing in. Steve is talking to the voice in his head again.
“Jenny, morning. I’m fine, yes. No, I stayed in the guest house. Fine. A little poky but warm enough, reminded me why we built the new place. All those low ceilings and wonky walls. But it’s dry, and there isn’t a bloody tree sticking out of it. Did you get hold of them? What? What the hell could they be busy with? There’s nobody here! Fine. Fine. Yes, Fine – look, I can’t leave the place like this, anyone could walk in. I’m going to stay for a few days, until someone can come out and make it secure. No, I brought the Tesla.” He laughs.
“No, it did not, not at all. You pay half a million for a house and there’s no road to get to it!” He laughs again then stops to listen. Jenny does not seem to have been laughing. Perhaps she did not like his joke. There is a long pause and Steve chews his lip throughout. He is physically biting his tongue. When Jenny is done, he snaps at her.
“Look, just get someone out OK? I’ll go to the pub, use their wi-fi. I don’t know, it’s got a silly name. The Bugaboo? Something colourful for the tourists.”
That is not its name. The Inn is a reminder that passes tourists by. You need to know a thing first to forget it.
“The signal here is shit. Can you forward my emails to my personal account? Great. Right. Bye.”
He taps furiously at his ear and stands with his hands on his hips staring at the caved-in house. He turns. Attracted by movement on the beach. Creatures stirring. Steve is on it. This is a thing he seems equipped for; he moves with purpose, to the top of the wooden rope-railed staircase that slopes down towards the sand.
The shapes on the beach ignore him. Small and quick footed. They are searching for something, below the balcony.
“This is a private beach! You can’t be here. I’m sorry, but you’ll have to leave.” Steve does not sound sorry. Not at all. The two figures show no sign of hearing and Steve hurries down the steps and begins striding over crushed seashells and seaweed to the trespassers. He’ll show them. Steve will show them.
But alas. Steve will not because, somehow, when he arrives at the spot, the spot they searched on, it is empty even of footprints. Steve wheels about in the cold wind. Flecked with sea foam and licked by a salt tongued breeze. Alone. Those rascals, those scoundrels, have escaped him.
As though they were ghosts.
Steve mutters steadily as he climbs the cliff, and his discomfort is buffeted to the ears of those that would listen until the door of the Toll House slams shut.
The morning passes quietly enough. The seagulls hang immobile on the wind, swaying lightly but holding firm. There is a creak, now and then, as the tree shifts in its cradle, and down on the beach the seals are back to bury their dead. Peace. Until Steve remerges. He starts towards the Tesla but stops. Looks down the old track he arrived on and shakes his head. He turns and climbs the stile towards the cliff path.
It clings close to the edge of the field, teasing a collapse in several places though it never falls. Steve clings to it, threatened onto the straight and narrow by gales to his windward side and cattle to his lee. The cattle are bothered by wind nor man, though they follow Steve as he walks, chivvy him along. Focused on glaring at the cattle to his right, he misses the miracles to his left. A raven passes, flying upside down, just because it can, and when it has had enough it pivots and swoops and lands cawing on a drystone wall that ought not be standing, really. The boundary of a long-lost field, it is now nothing but a line of rock atop a bigger one. There are sparrowhawks, too. And kestrel. Searching in the grass for mice and rats that scurry eyes fixed downwards. Steve moves in the same way. Blind to what is hunting him. The path begins to descend. Over the years a natural progression has emerged. Soil giving way until the slate was met and a rock-worn tumbling staircase was revealed. No handrails here. Nothing to slow a faster descent, should a foot slip. Steve’s feet do not slip. He reaches the bottom breathless but safe and steps onto the concrete curb with audible relief.
The bay used to hold a few houses here and there. A farm, some cottages. All gone now bar the few that cluster around the inn. The new estate sits above the wide sandy beach in darkness. Not a light is on. There are no Teslas here. Nothing moves but the occasional seabird. A flock of oystercatchers whistling overhead. Steve is the only Steve here. There are no other Steves at this time of year; Steve is a Steve out of season. It does not seem to bother him. He moves through the empty houses with a sneer on his face. Smiling at points of difference any other onlooker would not discern. Once or twice, he stops suddenly, his face reddens. Envy spread across it. These houses he passes quickly. But he always looks back.
He is at the seafront again now. On the carefully maintained strip of pavement that follows the beach. The sand is wet and carved out by wind and Steve looks at it with the same disgust he viewed the cattle. The track to his house. He does not see the sea glass burnished in the sand, does not see the seals on the rocks to the north. He does see, however, the dark clouds the wind is driving onto shore, a fleet of them. And, unpractised though he is, even Steve doesn’t misread that sign. Steve turns towards the end of the bay. Past the last stragglers of glass fronted empty houses and the shuttered shops. Past loud things now quiet. Like Steve, this paradise is out of season. The oystercatchers have circled back, their whistles a bellow overhead as Steve breaks cover, calling the clouds and the rain to him. He is heading for the lights that hang below the headland. On the spit of the quay. To get to it he clambers over a low chain fence that separates concrete from quarried stone. From granite.
The last bastion of the old village. A few small cottages stand on the quayside, new names chiselled onto slate that, just like the Toll House, stand empty.
The Net Loft.
The Harbourmaster’s Cottage.
Each a joke on someone that has never found it funny. In the harbour, fishing boats rattle their chains. Steve skirts these and stumbles into a stack of lobster pots that send him sprawling, long severed pincers reaching out for help. There is a laugh. Steve looks up to see a fisherman tidying the deck of one of the boats. As he chuckles he pulls a crab from the pot, kisses its shell and throws it back into the sea, eyes to the heavens.
Then the man, still smiling at the sprawl of legs and fishing nets in front of him, climbs over gunwale to solid ground and heads inside the Inn. You can smell the sea as he leaves. Handed down to him from his father, and his. Going back to the flood.
Steve, who smells of nothing, stands, brushes himself off and heads inside the pub. Not added colour for tourists. Its painted sign swings in the wind and shouts its name, The Bucca’s Due. Named for a story that used to be true. The window stickered with the promise of ales. Of Doombar Pale, Moorland Stout, Free Wiffi. Delicious.
Look, door open and inviting. Though there are only a few inside. The money made in the warmer months, the inn now half asleep, half shut down to survive but always open, just in case. Warm light pooling on the quayside from door and window. The window in which a bottle hangs full of coloured threads. There must be thousands. Millions. Begging to be counted.
There’s a tradition that says wayward spirits can’t help but stop and count them. Nonsense of course. Nonetheless…
Dark. The pub is dark, the light in the window out and now the answer may never be known. The jar keeps its secret. Has done its job. Chalk one up to superstition. The fishermen must have gone home. Gone to newer houses further inland that don’t have names, just numbers. Pebble dashed and too far from the sea.
Steve is gone too. Where? Back to the house, perhaps. A shortcut taken across the beach, around the headland just ahead of the tide. A few drinks inside him and brave enough to face the surf.
What if he slips? What if the water takes him before his time? No sign of him stumbling across the dark shale, the moonlit seaweed and cuttlebones. How long has it been since he left?
Nothing on the bay, so round the corner to the beach below the house that hangs over the cliffside as though a high tide had left it stranded. There. A shadow in shadows. Steve lurches up the steps to the clifftop. Not sure footed but lucky Steve is scrambling to the top. A Lucky man. A lonely man, no—not alone. He taps his head.
“Jenny? Jen?” His voice slurred and slipshod. “Jenny?” He’s shouting now and drowning out anything that poor voice might be saying to him. “Bugger it.” A tap, the voice is gone, and Steve is home, tripping over the low fence and falling face first onto foreign gravel, imported expensively from distant shores.
“Shit.” He sits, brushes himself off and stares in amazement at the hole that the tree left, bereft of tree. There is confused murmuring, what did you drink Steve? In the Pub? Too much Wiffi? Too strong for you whatever it was. They’ve sent you home reeling. Unable to even utter a word of thanks at this great kindness. This grand removal.
Steve stands and turns and waves a dismissive hand at the place where the tree lay, goes inside the Toll House but there—look—the door ajar. An invitation clear as night. A thank you, perhaps. An opening, a chance.
No. The door is closed.
It is late in the day when Steve bursts forth. He almost trips over the shape on the mat. A ragged black pouch whose tendrils trail in the dirt. A gift. A present. It would sit prettily next to his shelves of seashells. His bottles of sand. If he was worried he shouldn’t take things from the beach below he needn’t be. Here is a gift. A hint. He bends down and examines the casing of the shark’s egg. Lifts it up. Feels the crackle of its edges, shakes it and listens to the sand rattling within, grains spilling from the crack in its side.
Throws it away.
An outstretched hand rebuffed and two heads dip back below the clifftop to wait for company. Another buzzing in Steve’s head. Jenny? No.
“Yes, hello? Speaking. Not for a…what are you talking about the tree’s gone, your lot must have been up here last night.” A pause. Steve listens, eyes flicking to the hole that the roots left. He walks to the edge as he listens and looks down into the darkness. To the hollow beneath, lined with duck down and tangled nets. A smuggler’s rest long abandoned, the caves to it collapsed. Maybe. It has the trappings of a bower.
“Right. Well, it’s gone anyway so it’s just the house that needs making safe. Can you send someone up to take a look?” Another pause and Steve loses interest in the hole. Walks distractedly to the Tesla, places a hand on its roof. “How long? I need it done by the end of the week.” A pause again. These new voices must have some power over him; he shrinks back from them, clutching the Tesla for support. “Fine. As soon as you can, then.” He slaps at his ear like a horsefly bite to still the noise.
Making safe. The house needs making safe. But after that, a payment due.
A house that’s safe.
The first drops of rain fall and Steve hurries inside. Not to his cosy, thick walled house into which things cannot see. Into a private, hidden nest built for this very thing, to weather storms. No, Steve rushes into his shattered glass skull of a house that sounds like a hailstorm as the water hits it. The house that has not yet been made safe. No need to follow, you can see right through. He pulls the last unbroken bottle from its glowing box. Now this is promising. A libation. He hurries out of the wreckage again and into the cottage. Nothing spilt along the way. The weather is blooming, blossoming into a tempest and it rails against the windows of both broken house and whole. Through the glass of the latter Steve can be seen, drinking his wine, not looking happy. A tap on the window, to keep an eye.
TAP TAP TAP
Up he jumps. Red wine spilt onto polished boards. No good there Steve. Pour it onto the sand. His face pressed to the glass and looking into the grey looks scared, uncomfortable. Even through the window his whisper is audible.
What trees Steve? None stand close enough to tap the glass. Something else, just as long and gnarled and branched. Hands outstretched. Fingers rapping. Steve closes the curtains and is lost again.
It is midnight when he reappears. Bleary eyed. The wine has robbed him of sleep. He steps out onto the driveway, moonlit, the silver light making even this sorry sight at least a fraction more beautiful. The rain has stopped. Even the wind has dropped. Steve walks to the cliff and stares out to sea. The ground beneath his feet a mere tremble away from falling. His turned back waiting to be pushed. But he stands. Looks out. Gasps. There had been a low fog across the water, but it rolls away like an anchovy tin lid, a sea of moonlit scales beneath. There in the water like some dredged up squid a tangle of black wood and leafless canopy floats the tree. A reminder of a favour done that’s yet to be repaid. The moon catches on the wet bark and the sound of the sea lapping at its edges echoes up towards the cliff. Steve turns and freezes, staring at something he cannot possibly see. Staring at me.
He taps the side of his head as though I can be shut off.
I am not in your head, Steve. I am here.
He scrabbles at his ear, pulls a little black object out, a shell-less whelk and hurls it to the floor then stands panting in the moonlight.
Is that Jenny, Steve?
Jenny lies quiet on the gravel. Steve runs inside his glass house, I can see him moving through the rooms. Can see him consider, for a moment, climbing the shattered bones of the stairs to the upper floors.
This was your own fault, Steve. If you had lived quietly in that little house with thick stone walls I cannot enter I would have stayed sleeping. I would have faded away. But you built this house, shook the earth, loosened the roots of a tree as tired as I am. It was only a matter of time.
Why have you gone inside, Steve? It’s dangerous. I have not finished. The tree was just the start. I will make your house safe. I am only trying to help.
But Steve does not listen. He is on the balcony again. Creaking struts and popping bolts.
When it falls it does so screaming. A flock of kittiwake, a fox calling. Twisted metal and breaking glass. Down goes Steve and the house, the tide rising to meet them.
Thank you Steve. How generous. Quite the offering. A little too much perhaps? Though the favours I granted were substantial. And the door to the toll house left ajar! A new home to replace the one I lost. The one that is filling with water. A cosy place to sit and wait for those I hope are more grateful for my help. I am very helpful. As I cross I look out across the bay, past the three figures standing in the water, I see a light still on upstairs at the inn.
The Bucca’s Due. Named after a time when, once the fish had been caught, a little pile was left on the sand. For the Bucca. For the sea. For me. Payment for a favour done. A bountiful catch. A fortuitous tide. Some mackerel, some pilchard. An eel. A little piece for what they took. Never more than could be spared, a morsel not a meal. But those days are gone. Those people have left. There are no little gifts left on the sand.
I had thought those days were done. The busy summers, full of people who did not need my help. Did not wish to feed me. Pay me. Nothing worth staying awake for. But I am awake now. Ready to help. And I have not been fed in a very long time
Sam is a writer living above the moor in Cornwall, he also works in a library by the sea. He was shortlisted for the Bridport flash fiction prize in 2020, and in 2021 was longlisted for the Louise Walters Books page 100 competition, as well as shortlisted and highly commended in the Hammond House international short story prize. In January this year he was featured on an episode of Litopia’s ‘Pop up Submissions’ which he won. He is represented by John Baker at Bell, Lomax, Moreton and his first novel GORSE, a historical folk horror, is out on submission.
(“There are no witches, only women.” Female protester, outside the Witch Museum, Zugarramurdi, Spain, 24 March 2019)
wild men wear coats
of hair invisible under a shirt and tie
a uniform or just something casual from
have always thought her evil
tricked trapped spellbound
drowned impaled on pins burned
Louise Longson started writing poetry in her late 50s, during isolation in lockdown 2020. She is widely published in print and online, and author of the chapbooks Hanging Fire (Dreich Publications, 2021) and Songs from the Witch Bottle: cytoplasmic variations (Alien Buddha Press, 2022). A qualified psychotherapist, she works remotely from her home in a small village for a charity that offers a listening service to people whose physical and emotional distress is caused by loneliness and historic trauma. Her poems are inspired by a bringing together of her personal and work experiences, myth and legend, and the natural environment.
Your brown curls danced in the firelight. They hid your face, but your hand tugged at mine, pulling me away from our bedroom, from our home, into the woods, into the night.
Burning timber snapped and popped, followed by the crack of plaster and debris coming down in a rush.
I wanted to turn around, but you drew me onward, dew-wet leaves and branches giving way as we wandered through the forest.
“Don’t, my dear. Follow me. I want to show you something.”
I followed your scent, your coconut shampoo pulling me along even without your hand in mine. We climbed a hill together where we could see above all the treetops.
This was serenity.
“Now, my dear. Look.”
The smell of smoke filled my nose and burned my lungs. Your charred face met my own and we turned together toward where our house had stood and saw not the devastation of a city burning, but the red-yellow rays of a golden sunrise.
Kai Delmas loves creating worlds and magic systems and is a slush reader for Apex Magazine. He is a winner of the monthly Apex Microfiction Contest and his fiction can be found in Martian, Etherea, Tree And Stone, Wyldblood, and several Shacklebound anthologies. Find him on Twitter @KaiDelmas.
photo by Thái Huỳnh and Rowan Freeman (via pexels and unsplash)