The Woman Is Always Haunted Long Before the House—Amy O’Neil

She wafts in and out of endless rooms with mops and dusters, scrambling for pills in the medicine cabinet. Doors slam behind her. The house is extravagantly large. Wooden floorboards, seventies decor, creaky doors. She glances at the clock. When will he be home? 

She tells her husband about the noises, the shadows lurking in mirrors, the girl in the painting.

‘It’s all in your mind,’ he says cheerfully, kissing the crown of her head, as if being haunted from the inside out makes any difference.

‘The house is too big.’

But he must dash. He’s late for work.

She touches her belly. She prays. What other options are there? Her drinking habit is getting out of hand.

In the painting, a little girl sits behind a window. Raindrops smear her mouth into a frown. As the woman studies the girl, we study her. Uncomfortably close. We could count her pores if Hollywood hadn’t erased them. In any case, we are offered delicately parted lips, a pert nose, darting, frightened eyes. The lost gaze of nothing to do, nowhere to go.

Discordant piano music reaches a crescendo, like a toddler is clumsily slamming the keys. A warning. The girl in the painting twists her mouth, struggling to form words. But what is she trying to say? She must be evil.

The husband finds his wife sleepwalking dangerously close to the pond in a white, sheer nightie. Her only other garments are dresses he bought to cheer her up, necklaces he clasped around her neck while she watched him in the mirror. Now she reaches fingers towards the pond as if groping for something impossible and her hair is clotted with mud. She’s jolted out of her stupor at his touch. The fallen strap of her nightie tells us this can only end one way: insanity or death.

‘We’ll fix it,’ he says, drawing her close. She believes him. We believe him. He carries her into the safety of the house. ‘You must sleep,’ he says. 

Everybody is relieved when she’s unconscious.

He flushes her pills, pours the whiskey down the sink. He holds her wrists while she thrashes against him, eventually collapsing on the kitchen floor in ugly tears.

He resolves to end the affair with his secretary, to give her what she so desperately needs. We all know what she needs. The only thing a woman could need. The camera slides to her stomach.

It’s dark and the windows are open, and she wraps a shawl around her shoulders rather than close them. She puts the kettle on, gazes at the empty lawn stretching towards the forest. A thought holds her there. The camera zooms closer. We no longer perceive her as a whole; she’s an eye, a cornea, a stray lash. We can almost climb inside her skin.

He hacks at the painting with an axe. This will save them. 

The little girl is still trying to say something. Mouthing silent words between strokes of the blade with more urgency than ever. Her attempts are buried in splintered wood and canvas. The woman is crying, clutching her belly, crying.

‘You must sleep!’ he insists.

The little girl is begging her to listen. 

It’s no good. The husband has got into his stride and is grunting with effort. Piano keys crash and clamour. The woman’s face is warped by tears. The camera recoils. 

The painting is a heap on the floor, but he continues with the axe, smiling, laughing: catharsis. 

‘We’ll buy a new one,’ he says upon noticing his wife’s face. 

She searches for a dustpan and brush.

‘It doesn’t matter,’ she whispers. We nod. We understand. 

Even if the girl’s voice could raise itself from the rubble and tell a different story, no-one would believe her.

Amy O’Neil lives in Brighton, UK. Her stories have appeared in Mslexia, The Forge, Vestal Review, Flash 500, and others. She recently won the Grindstone literary Flash Fiction contest and Globe Soup Summer short story contest. She is currently working on her first novel. You can find her on Twitter @amygraceONeil.

photo by Maria Orlova (via pexels), painting generated using Midjourney

biting back—Marisca Pichette

with each step
the world we left behind
curls
into ghosts.

We Draw Blood
to remind ourselves
of the fires we built

Together.

Marisca Pichette is a queer creator of monsters and mischief. More of her work appears in Strange Horizons, Fireside Magazine, Fusion Fragment, Vastarien, Baffling Magazine, PseudoPod, and PodCastle, among others. Find her on Twitter as @MariscaPichette and Instagram as @marisca_write. Website: www.mariscapichette.com

photo by Cassi Josh (via unsplash)

Gravity Has Left This House—Amy Stone

They tickle, those tiny bubbles, skimming up her skin. She imagines little pearls, escaping the closed shell of her mouth, through the smallest fissures. She never opens her eyes underwater. She doesn’t trust it. But she likes to lie under the bathwater, like this, for as long as she can hold her breath. She can remember being in the womb. She’ll never tell anyone, but she’s sure she can. 

This is as close as she can get to that feeling. Completely submerged, suspended, safe. Warm, slow. She can sense light, dark, colour. All she can hear is the gentle, low rumble of her own body and the water. Her heartbeat, her blood vessels, the passages and corridors relaxing, letting it all pass through. The dull creak of her bones if she chooses to flex a joint or stretch a limb. She has to surface soon. Her lungs ache. The familiar tight panic in her throat begins to rise. She breaks up and out of the water, gasping, into the cold, empty air.

She will only open her eyes once she’s swept away the soft slick of hair from them and swiped the excess water from the lids.

Eyes open. Empty. There is nothing for you here. You are alone in this house. 

Bed. Time for bed. She squeezes as much water from her hair into the towel as it will take. Hanging it over the rack at the foot of the bed, she looks up. 

Something fell on her. 

It felt like a raindrop, on her arm. She can’t see anything coming from the ceiling. It stares back at her, blank. She runs her fingers over the skin on her arm. It’s dry. She tells herself it must have been her hair, somehow, even though it isn’t dripping any more.

‘It’s stuffy in here,’ she says, walking over to the window. It’s a heavy sash, with a brass catch that slides open, reluctantly. She hauls up the panel and lets the night in. The air is warm, with a strong breeze. Your hair will be dry in no time

She’s wearing a thin cotton dressing gown, her light summer one. The edges flutter in the wind, enough to make her re-wrap herself and tighten up the belt.

Outside, the garden sways. The tree canopy, the swaggering flowers, the long grass – they ripple together and whirl round, like the sea. Black, dark green, deep blue in the moonlight. She watches the ocean rise and fall, swell with the tide under its moon.

She grips her belt and leans, letting her forehead rest against the edge of the sash, as she strains to see the flags directly underneath. Would it kill her, if she fell from this height? Probably not. Maybe, if she hit her head first. She imagines what the blood would look like, how far it would spread. She decides it would look like oil. It would be black, glossy. It would creep across the concrete in the same way.

She hears something and turns to look around the room. Tap-tap-tap. A necklace sways, dangling from her jewellery stand. She drags the sash down and pulls the catch back into place. No. It will be stifling. She opens it up again but only leaves an inch free this time – just enough to let the air swim in and out.

Tick-tick-tick. It sounds wet, like rain coming through the window, or a tap, dripping slowly. She watches the necklace. Tick-tap-tick. It doesn’t move. There’s no rain on the sill. Besides, it hasn’t been raining. It isn’t raining. The sky is clear. 

She walks to the bathroom and pulls the light cord, illuminating the last of the steam. None of the taps let anything go. She tightens them all, nonetheless.

Bed.

A line from a favourite song runs through her head: you’re tender and you’re tired.

She sighs and walks back into the bedroom, rubbing her eyelids. She draws the curtains, knowing they’ll spend most of the night reaching into the room, letting a ripple of light flash from under them, then they’ll pull back again and take it away. Over and over. She knows she’ll watch them do this, for hours.

***

When sleep comes to her it is fractured, shallow, unsatisfying. Barely discernible from lying awake, too hot and too still. She remembers her mother’s voice. Just relax. Don’t try too hard. It doesn’t matter if you don’t sleep, your body is getting the rest it needs if you just lie and relax.

She doesn’t dream anymore, or at least, she doesn’t remember her dreams. She misses them. They used to keep her company. There’s nothing to look forward to, without them. That’s one of the reasons she stopped the tablets, just a couple of weeks ago. She doesn’t want it, anymore, that numbing grey where she feels nothing, remembers nothing, wants nothing, thinks nothing. You’re safe, though. Especially now, living alone. The colour, the memories, the things you wanted, the things you did – left alone, where would it end? She thought of the drop between her window and the concrete. The blood-slick, black in the moonlight.

Somewhere between watching the curtain edges and the swaying cobweb on the ceiling, she falls into a deeper sleep. She dreams, for the first time in months. A swimming dream.

What mass of water is it? She has no idea. She’s under, several feet below the surface, swimming, as though she’s looking for something. Breathing isn’t a problem. It’s happening, somehow, through the water. The ground is too murky to see, as though sand or mud has been kicked up. It isn’t seawater. It isn’t freshwater. It tastes of nothing, except perhaps faintly of her skin. It’s warm. Bathwater warm. That sound, the sound of the inside of her body, fills her ears. Whatever she’s looking for, she’s in no rush to find it. She wants to stay.

There’s something ahead of her. A shadow, behind the silt. Getting bigger. A face, a pale face with dark eyes and an open mouth. It lunges towards her, through the murk. She shoots backwards and gasps, screaming awake.

Breathe. You’re awake. Breathe.

Maybe she doesn’t miss dreams, after all. She sighs and rubs her eyelids, pushes her hair back from her face.

Tick-tick-tick. Tip-tap-tak. The noise is there again. She sees something glistening in the corner of the room, in the direction of the sound. She lunges to grab the stem of the bedside lamp and switch it on. Water is trickling down the wall, dripping to the floorboards. She frowns, squinting to see the origin of the leak. It hasn’t rained in weeks. There are no pipes up there, as far as she knows. You must be wrong

It has to be pipes, on a circuitous route to the bathroom, maybe.

She sighs and peels back the bedclothes, grabbing her dressing gown and shivering as she draws it over her clammy skin. Shove some towels in the corner, deal with it tomorrow

She stands up and pulls back the curtain. The sea has calmed. The canopy is sleeping, the flowers, grass, resting. Just breathing, gently. She should find it comforting, but it worries her, somehow. Makes her feel more alone. 

A flash of something makes her step back. A streak of silver, cutting down the black in front of her. It lands on the windowsill, splashing into a pool that threatens to spread over the edge, onto the floor. Above her, she can see the water starts at the crack between the ceiling and the wall, silently running down to the edge of the border before falling to the sill below.

Something is broken, somewhere. Her foot twitches off the floor, in reflex at a touch. She looks down as the touch reaches her other foot. 

No

The water is creeping across the floor, from under the bed. She swallows, trying to slow her breathing. The hem of her dressing gown pulses in time with her heartbeat. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Her eyes flicker as she forces them to take in the scene around her.

She puts her hand to her mouth, as if to muffle a scream, but she can’t seem to make a sound. 

The walls are moving, rippling, sliding with streams pouring down from the ceiling. All across the wall behind her wardrobe, the wall behind the bed, the other where her dressing table stands and the one with the window – all suddenly alive with little rivers, running to the floor. A creak, a groan from the eaves makes her stagger backwards but she slips and falls, landing in the rising pool. It’s warm. She scrambles to her feet, clinging to the bed. The back of her gown is wet. Her legs are dripping.

The phone is downstairs. She practices what she will say, to convey the urgency. It’s not a leak. It’s a flood. The house is flooded. Flooding – flooding. The water keeps coming and it’s warm. The roof will collapse. The walls will cave in. You have to come out. I don’t know where it’s coming from. Hot water pipes, maybe. It’s not safe. 

Don’t fall and hit your head, she says to herself. If you panic, you’ll make things worse. Tread carefully. Slowly. She breathes in through her nose and out through her mouth, taking each step through the water, just up to her ankles, as precisely as her shaking legs will allow.

The water sweeps back as she opens the door in on it, then it reaches out onto the landing after her. She switches on the light. It’s dripping from the ceiling there, too. Especially around the hatch for the attic. A curtain of water, like a garden fountain, falls from the frame surrounding it, where the hatch door pulls down.

The day before, she’d been up in the attic, searching through boxes. The ladder still stands against the wall, next to her. She pictures the room. It was dry. Dusty. Hot. There are no pipes up there, she says to herself, remembering the bare floorboards and the gaps between them, showing nothing except dust and flakes of plasterboard. Nothing.

She looks down the stairs, to where she should be going, to call for help. You miss the colour, though, don’t you? The light. She grabs the ladder. It slices through the curtain of water, making it slippery as she puts her foot on the first step. 

The water pours directly down her front as she ascends. First her knees, then her chest, then her face. It skims her back and bottom, then as she reaches the top, directly under the hatch, she’s inside the curtain. She blinks and smooths away the soaked tendrils of hair from her face, examining the hatch. The perimeter, the gap between the frame and the door itself, is glowing. She watches the silver ribbons cascade down from the blue-white light, immediately losing colour as they leave the edge.

Did I leave the light on? It was never that colour. Never that bright.

She struggles with the catch that releases the door, as she did every time. Finally, it flicks sideways. She holds the door in place, suddenly realising what will happen. All that water is going to gush out all at once and knock you off this ladder

She swallows.

One hand remains propping up the door, the other moves to hold the ladder tight. She leans, trying to keep her feet firmly gripped to the step as she angles her body as far out of the line of fire as she can. She closes her eyes as her face passes under the curtain of water again, then shakes the excess off once she’s through to the other side. Her chest and arms are now under the waterfall, but it doesn’t matter. Her head is beyond the line of fire. She can see. She can stand firm.

‘Okay,’ she says, focussing on her hand that’s holding the door in the frame. The blue-white glow glimmers through the cracks above her. She counts herself down, gripping the ladder.

‘3, 2, 1—’

She snaps her arm back and lets the door swing open, her face turned away, eyes screwed tightly closed, braced for impact. The shower from the edge spurts sideways as the door disturbs it, but nothing else happens. She opens her eyes and squints into the dazzling glow that bears down the ladder. The water slows to a trickle, then a drip. The sound of fountains stops. The light softens. She leans back under the hatch, a single drop falling on her face as she passes under the edge. Her eyes begin to adjust to the light. 

She doesn’t understand what she’s looking at.

Above her, she can see into the attic. Right up to the eaves. Up to the skylight and the darkness outside, clashing against the brightness within. She isn’t seeing it as she ever has before, though. She’s seeing it through water, as though she’s standing under a swimming pool with a glass bottom, staring up through the gently undulating liquid.

She reaches out her hand, slowly, to the floor of water above her. As her fingers near the surface she snaps them back, sure she’s seen something move above. Her eyes search the space. Nothing. She sticks her fingers straight through the surface, braced. 

Gravity has left this house, a voice says. You’ve lost your mind, again.  

It’s like dipping her hand into a bath. A warm pool. But it’s above her, and there’s nothing holding it up. She feels tears spring out and trail down her face. What does it mean? What does it mean this time? 

She knows she has to see it out. The attic is full. There is no surface to break on the other side. It’s like a flooded chamber of a ship. The water is pushing against the ceiling. She can feel it.

She knows what she has to do. She undoes the belt of her dressing gown and lets it fall to the floor. She plunges her hands and arms up, reaching across on either side, feeling through the water for the edges of the frame. Breathe in, breathe out. In, out.

In, and hold. She pulls herself up and her head breaks the surface. The warm wet envelops her entirely as she hauls herself up, getting lighter, easier, the more of her is through the other side. Her weightless frame perches on the edge of the hatch, with only her lower legs and feet left dangling over the edge, into the air.

It’s darker than she thought. From below the water, it looked clear and bright, but now she’s in it, the light has dimmed. It’s still there, on the other side of her eyelids, but it’s dialled down. Subdued. You have to open your eyes. She fights it, sitting still, gripping the edges of the wood by her leg, feeling her bones creak. The tiny bubbles tickle again. Escaping her nose, running up the side to the inner corner of her eye, then up again, caught in the net of her eyebrow. The pearls escaping the shell of her mouth rolled, fast, smashing into her eyelashes, shattering out.

You can’t do it.

She feels something. Pressure, movement in the water, a rush against her arm. She turns, instinctively opening her eyes.

A shadow disappears. The skylight, which had been a black oblong when she viewed it through the neon blue, is now the only source of light in the murk. The moon is right above it, half obscured by clouds, casting rays throughout the attic. She’s aware of movement all around and wills the light to strengthen. Shadows, everywhere. The room seems to go on forever – she can’t see the walls on any side. It’s vast.

She doesn’t feel the need to breathe. The reflex has gone. There’s no lack, no strain. None of the dizzy panic she feels when she holds her breath under the bathwater. She pulls her feet in from the air and brings her knees up to her chin, hugging her legs to her chest. This is the place, she tells herself. This is the place you have brought yourself to. Face it.

She looks up at the skylight as the cloud drifts away from the moon, letting its whole face show. The light disperses through the blackness. Her eyes widen. The shadows are alive. They are swimming. They are everywhere. Fish. Sharp, streamlined, soaring. Sharks. Some smaller than her arm. Others half her size, some much bigger. Swimming through the space all around her. A huge shape, a solid block with a slight sweep of a curve, passes between her and the light above. She sees it taper in, back to the body that slides past her into the dark. Hammerhead. The corner of her mouth lifts. She can’t help but smile. It is beautiful, all of it. She could stay here. 

She lets go of her knees and lets her arms spread. She slowly stands, her legs stretching out under her, pushing her higher into the space. She kicks her legs and sweeps her arms round to the side, turning in the water until she has seen right around her. Her hair sways in and out of her vision. She looks at her hands, then down at her body, almost glowing in the moonlight. Weightless.

They ignore her, only altering their course if she’s in their way. Their pale undersides are broken only by black slashes, cracks in chalk rock, their motionless mouths. She finds their eyes unsettling, but then, she finds her own eyes unsettling when she sees them in the mirror. You could stay here.

She swims away from the window, into the darkness, losing the moonlight, ray by ray. She looks back at the teeming scene under the skylight and shakes her head, smiling, turning back to explore the black.

There’s a shape ahead, barely lit but just about visible in the dark. She squints. It has the same kind of movement as the others. The glide that snakes from side to side, the front always at a slight angle to the back. She moves a few strokes backwards, willing it to come into the light. For the first time since entering the water, she becomes aware of her heartbeat. The sounds that usually dominate her submerged world had been overtaken, to this point, by the sounds of motion all around her. Now she hears her heartbeat, the blood rushing through her veins, and her teeth, grinding together, as she watches the mass move closer.

The light hits its nose. The grey tip comes closer, getting wider. She uses one arm to propel her backwards, still watching. It sways towards her, then away, as more of it enters the light. Two black gashes, either side, look like nostrils, maybe. It turns to face her, dead on. The eyes appear, bigger, deeper than anything. What she can see of it is bigger than her. Adrenaline. She turns, swimming away as fast as the water lets her. She’s screaming, but making no sound.

She turns for a fraction of a second to judge how far from her it is, then carries on swimming towards the skylight. What she saw was in her head now. There was no getting it out. The mouth. Wider, taller than the house, teeth like jagged rocks – and the blackness beyond them – she’ll never escape it. She has to try.

Her limbs burn. She focuses on the square of light ahead and tries to sprint. It’s like the dream where she’s running from the killer but she’s so, so slow. Swimming through tar. Don’t look back. The skylight is getting closer, but she feels a rush, a pressure, pulling her back, as though it has its own gravitational pull that’s drawing her in. Don’t look back.

Her hands are on the catch, she’s there. Something is just behind her foot, though, she feels the force of it rising up under her. The catch rattles as her shaking hands force it. She glances back as she pushes the window open, enough to see teeth, bigger than her, bearing down, closing in, as the water gushes out and takes her with it.

She’s rolling down the roof, scrabbling at the slate tiles to stop herself, but they’re slippery with the water that sweeps over them. Her foot jams against something and she manages to cling to a dry tile with one hand. She’s stopped on the edge of the roof, on her back, her foot in the gutter. Her skin stings. There are grazes, bruises, tiny cuts all over her body from the friction against her bare skin. She’s filthy, too. She manages to use her jammed foot to turn herself over to lie on her front, clinging to the tiles, panting into the dampness. 

Dawn is breaking.

She rests her face against the roof, turned slightly so that one eye can watch the horizon. The sun is coming up behind the skyline, with its towers and trees and hills. It throws rays out across the fields, the farm buildings, the rows of terraced houses and the grander streets with their semi-detached, bay-windowed ones. The sky is pale orange, with a hint of champagne pink and a touch of indigo still, from the retreating night. She lifts her head and turns to look at the open skylight.

The water has stopped spilling out. She pushes herself up, leaning on her elbows, straining to see. Her joints ache. Her hands are bleeding, her nails broken off. Breathe. Breathe deep. She does, and gets to her knees, crawling up to the skylight, grasping the tiles, staying low to the roof beneath her. When her face is level with the opening, she stops. The dark tracks left by the water are gone. She looks back, down beside herself, where the torrent had tipped over the edge. Nothing.

She leans over the skylight. The attic is empty. Dry. She lowers her head down so she can see each of the four walls, back to the border they occupied before. All she can see is the same dust, cardboard boxes and fragments of plasterboard that had always been there.

She sits upright, then peers over the edge of the roof, to the garden below. Dew sits on the grass. Nothing more. A blackbird perches in the tree and begins singing, clear and sharp. The flowers are just opening, colours beginning to burst. She sits back, pulls her knees to her chest and hugs them. Her skin, her hair, is completely dry. She feels a whisper of wind skim over her.

She smiles, watching the sunrise, letting her tears roll down to water the garden.

Amy Stone lives and works in Sheffield. Her first novel, The Raven Wheel, was longlisted for the Arnold Bennett Literary Award 2020. Amy has also been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize in the short story category and her first piece of flash fiction was nominated for a Puschart Prize last year, by Janus Literary. Find Amy on Twitter @amy_fleur_stone

photo by Jonas Allert, Dmitry Ant and Cristian Palmer (via unsplash)

The Princess on the Glass Hill Becoming—Joel Hans

The princess on the glass hill mourning.

The three golden apples dropping from inside the princess on the glass hill.

The apple tree doing nothing but completing the façade.

The princess on the glass hill exhibiting the golden apples to the crowd.

The people climbing after the king’s promise: Secure the three golden apples, secure the princess’ heart, secure your future.

The people hungering.

The people climbing.

The people falling.

The boy wearing copper shoes.

The girl whispering I won’t be all alone, I won’t be all alone, her copper ice axe landing lamely on each alone.

The solar salesperson adjusting their copper tie, asking if the princess has heard about the upcoming rate increase for her traditional energy usage.

The sky sunsetting.

The king’s men picking up the bodies.

The bodies feeding the glass hill for a little while longer.

The trick succeeding.

The glass hill murmuring.

The cycle continuing for a seventh year after the apples arrived and the glass mountain clarified its intentions with a cough that burned a third of the metropolis. 

The mockingbirds calling before dawn.

The tank-topped boys waving silvery cans of Coors from the open frame of their raised Jeep crawling on beadlocked Dick Cepeks at 12psi gripping the glass no better than feet or hooves or gloves or talons.

The knight collapsing beneath the weight of his chivalry, or was it only his silver armor?

The botanist craving just one scion from the apple tree so that she can finish her PhD, not knowing that to find the apples’ true source, she’d have to use her silver loppers to slide the princess on the glass hill from flank to flank.

The princess on the glass hill standing from her perch only to let the king and his men drop the day’s bodies into the mouth of the glass hill that feeds the belly of the whole earth.

The king fathering his hardest.

The king clearcutting soot and blood from beneath his eyes.

The king soiling the princess’ dress when he drops to his knees and presses his cheek to her thighs and clutches to her calves.

The girl on the glass mountain remembering how, long before the glass mountain was just a demanding mound, they used to ride his golden full-suspension mountain bike together, the extra seat with the stirrups, her hands on his handlebars and her helmet batting his chin, how his arms felt like a glass encasement that would protect her forever, how his laughter was a retreat, and how as she got older, she wanted that glass shattered, the freedom to explore freely, how she didn’t even think to notice how quickly that seat cultivated dust in the garage.

The king wishing it could be any other way.

The sunsetting.

The dawning.

The woman pleading, from the back seat of a golden Range Rover: Buy the dip, hold onto it for dear life, and you’ll be set for life.

The runner flashing a golden pendant that crowns them fastest in the world, which doesn’t help when they’re falling off to their death.

The documentarian waving a golden statue and an everspilling flute of champagne.

The sunsetting.

The princess on the glass hill looking out over the empty land beneath her.

The people hungering for her now gone.

The people fulfilling their role, never knowing if they had climbed to the top and claimed her, they would have turned the world inside-out.

The flow pyroclasting.

The ashcloud chilling.

The princess on the glass hill keeping a delicate balance in her sacrifice. 

The king’s men arriving with all the bodies.

The glass hill feeding until it becomes a mountain.

How else do you think it got so tall?

The princess on the glass mountain rolling the three golden apples between her hands.

The might-have-beens glowing in the starlight.

The year ending and another beginning.

The king cradling her, eclipsing her hurt and trying to swallow it with shadow. 

The king apologizing.

The king telling the princess on the glass mountain to run.

The king throwing himself into the glass mountain.

The princess on the glass mountain becoming the girl on the glass mountain.

The king becoming just like everyone else who had hungered for her, only that what he wanted for himself and what he wanted were never clear until just now, and never could have been the same.

The girl on the glass mountain realizing that her shoes were slipless all along.

The girl on the glass mountain becoming just a girl.

The girl feeling the glass around her shattered, but it is only grass.

The girl trying to decide which path to take now that she is free to wander this fated world, meet everyone who had not thrown themselves at the promise of her—are they maddened or mourning or merely human?

The golden apples lolling between her hands.

The loam sponging beneath her feet.

The land craving to be the instrument for something new, even now.

The girl departing.

The question remaining: Was her father sad to lose the time they once shared, or proud to have watched her lose it?

The glass mountain remaining.

The time remaining.

Joel Hans has published fiction in West BranchNo TokensPuerto del SolThe Masters ReviewRedivider, and others. He received his MFA from the University of Arizona and continues to live in Tucson, Arizona with his family. He can occasionally be found on Twitter @joelhans.

photo by Seda Nur Korkmaz and Dustin Hume (via pexels and unsplash respectively)

Why I Keep No Fire—Jonny Rodgers

content warning: infant death

Pushing the cottage door closed required all my meagre strength. Finally, with my shoulder aching against the grain, I wrestled it to and fumbled down the large iron bar. Thunder complained foully outside, the keyhole whistling as I caught my breath. No, Jeremiah Tinderton – your humble narrator – will never be acclaimed for his titanic constitution. My skills are in the sifting of soil, the cataloguing of stones, and the classification of rare minerals: modest gifts, I grant you, but they are my own and I take comfort in knowing where the streams of my talents flow freely and where they merely trickle tributaristically. 

I became suddenly aware of my dripping cloak and the water beading upon the bare boards: I was soaked through. Soaked, and yet I was nonetheless here. The tiny Scottish isle of St. Roderick’s was not a destination for which I would customarily have forsook London or my beloved mother. The island boasted few comforts: toothy crags, scraps of sheep leaner and greyer than the rocks themselves and winds that seemed permanently shot through with ice. The “winter” months could sometimes number four or even five. The small settlement community had shrunk over the latter half of the 1700s – several immense snowfalls being the chief culprits – and now, in 1846, the population had been reduced almost entirely to obstinate cottagers, refusing to abandon their ancient crofts to the gnaw of the elements. My host was one such steadfast example. And she was eyeing me.

“Ye ken put yer boots by the doar.” Oh, forgive me gentle reader! My quill droops, the very ink upon the page protests, and my quivering hand hesitates to precede, but, no – I must try to render her rustic speech as best I can recollect and set it down as faithfully as she spoke it. Therefore, steel your finer senses – they will be forced to endure much more, ere my tale is ended.

“Most kind,” I returned and bowed slightly, instantly feeling a touch of the absurd in my actions. She turned her face back to the fire. Despite the dramatic nature of my entry into her home – not to mention my superior social bearing – neither her person nor features had risen to any degree. Though I had been in her presence less than a minute, I concluded that the old woman was incapable of perturbation. 

But, as I mentioned, I relish the analysis of ancient, forgotten and half-buried things. As I gently set aside an obscuring broom and hung up my cloak upon one of the dull iron hooks, I took in the sour hang of her features, her arched back and the flinty hair. The colour of the latter, I keenly noted, correlated almost exactly to that of the knapped Neolithic axe-head Dr Fenbrush had generously bequeathed me last month. Most queer of all, however, was the withered red stump that lay where her right hand should have rested.

“Might I be permitted to warm myself by the fireside?”

“Aye,” she said, crooking her forehead towards the opposing chair. It was larger and I fancied, better made, than her own. A late husband’s chair, perhaps, too painful to remove from the hearth. The seat afforded me the opportunity of further scrutiny of my cronish host, but the fire was, in truth, delightful in itself. Forgotten now were the fierce gales that had earlier cut at my cheeks as I had paced from the mainland boatman – why he refused to stay a second longer than to receive his payment, I could only wonder. 

I have often, in my more whimsical moments, considered that I might one day indulge myself in the writing of a treatise – à la Charles Lamb – concerning the joys of the quotidian. The subject of my first essay: the humble fireplace. That welcoming glow, the luxurious warmth bestowed, the utility of food preparation (in lower households of course) and, above all these, the blissful crackle. Oh, how I used to adore the split and pop of the wood, the slow chewing up of a log’s blackened innards, the smoky parabola of an errant cinder escaping the flames’ clutch. Just how many years in the sum-total of our earthly existence has man spent, enraptured and immobile, staring into the heart of a fire. How many hours could I have spent, with eyelids shut, audibly imbibing the flick, click and smack of that blissful crackle. But, forgive me, I digress. Even with the entrancing sound of the fire, I felt a gentleman’s need to inquire further of my host.

“You are a widow I understand, Mrs Darroch?”

“Aye,” she replied, gently rocking in her chair, wasting not a syllable more than was necessary.

“Ah! And your children?” I ventured, having caught sight of a tiny charcoal likeness of a “wee bairn” – as she would no doubt have called it – upon the mantel. “They have now departed from St Roderick’s?”

“Aye.”

“I see.” Mrs Darroch, it seemed, did not perceive my invitation of further discourse. I was about to dangle a second conversational morsel upon my line, when she pointed her red stump to my right.

“Denner.”

Laid out upon a stool was my first evening’s meal – included with the price of my week’s lodging, a regrettably but necessarily costly five shillings and nine; I could find no other place on the island and had to accept whatever terms I was offered. With the two-pronged fork, I investigated the plate of small potatoes, yet smaller slices of turnip and the scrag of salted meat; evidently, my host was as parsimonious with her food as with her words. 

As I dined, perhaps owing to a lack of gustatory stimulation, I found my eyes once again drawn to the arm with which she had pointed. Upon this second, more prolonged, inspection, I realised that it was contrary to my first suppositions, not a stump but a hand. In these circumstances, ‘hand’ may well be regarded as a deficient word, as this usually refers to a fleshy palm with five supple, extendable digits; the thing that reposed upon the armrest was a dull red, the skin ruddy and shrunken around a warped mass of clenched sinew. So waxen, unfeeling and alien did it look that I supposed she might use it as a mashing implement should she acquire more than her minute stock of potatoes. Her eyes were fixed upon me.

“A suppose ye’re wonderin’ aboot it.”

“Hmm?” I said, blinking.

“Ma haun,” she said.

“Well, I suppose I would like to – ” I began, oafishly, “I do beg pardon for regarding it with such avidity.”

 “Mhm.” I could not tell whether this grunt was but a preface to some explanation of her strange appendage or if she had been offended greatly by my gazing upon it. There was silence, save for the delectable crackle of the fire, and I finished my meal, grateful for the distraction the task afforded me, however short-lived in duration and spartan in flavour. The beams of the cottage roof hung low above me. I noticed the windows had been welded shut – an attempt surely to defeat the winds that battered the house on all sides – and I felt a chill run through me, despite being sat in the centre of the hearth’s orange glow.

She lifted her eyes, took a breath and then cast them back to the fire. Across her features had raced a flicker of softness, which fled in the very next moment, as if she had been considering some difficult point of order then shaking it off. 

“Ye’ll need yer rest th’ nicht,” she stated, as she stared blandly into the flames.

“Yes, the boat ride was quite long and not a little treacherous. Does it always – ”

“Ye remember whit a wrote? Aboot yer lodgings?” she said, ignoring my fledgling question.

“Indeed, I do, but it does seem a little peculiar for me to sleep in here? Might I not use a bedroom after all?”

The bedroom. No a. The. Mine. Ye ken?” The fall of her words reminded me of the iron bar I’d earlier placed over the door. Heavy. Unbending. 

“Ah, I see.”

“Ye agreit,” she raised a bony finger to me.

“Yes, I recall doing so.”

Ye stay in here,” she said and snorted. “A wull nae stay here.”

“But why?” I regretted my impertinence immediately. Her eyes blazed in the firelight.

“A. Wull. Nae,” she repeated, tapping her red stump on the armrest with each word.

Mrs Darroch drew her shawl about her shoulders and rose from the chair. I could only imagine how bitter it would be in any room but this. I doubted her scant supply of fuel allowed her multiple fires about the cottage.

“Sure enough, mah auld bones ur plenty warmed,” she said, as if perceiving my thoughts, though she seemed to be addressing herself alone.

The bedroom door, smaller and flimsier than the one through which I had made my ingress, creaked as she departed. 

I was alone. 

My spirits were far from dampened however, and after performing my ablutions, I installed myself into the crude bedding the ancient widow had provided. The blankets were coarse but thick; the wool-sacks beneath me were generously stuffed and surprisingly sweet in fragrance. And had I not made it? Had I not proved mother’s fears ungrounded? After the perilous journey and tempestuous weather, I felt worthy of the firelight and the warmth in which I was bathed. Are not the intrepid entitled to their rest at the end of each day’s adventure? The lustre of this self-gratification dulled when I thought of the surely shivering form of Mrs Darroch in the next room. Perhaps she kept some feline companion that might offer her solace and heat. This was, indeed, a lonely island. I wondered if there were some store or tavern, whereby I might acquire some of the more cumbersome tools necessary for my week’s mineral survey. Such musings, along with that luxuriate crackling of the fireplace, transported me into the arms of Morpheus.

I awoke.

Cold. Yes, intensely cold. The flames still danced in the hearth and my blankets were, if anything, more tightly swathed about my person than when I had first drifted off. I thought I had heard a – there it was again. Distinctly, I heard it, as clearly as you now hear me. A footstep. Not upon the creaking boards that lay under my makeshift bed, but above my head. I scanned the room and confirmed what I already knew to be the case: the cottage was but the one level. There were no rooms above. Another step. Another. Could an intruder be making his ingress from the roof? He would have to be a desperate man to ransack such a threadbare abode. Unless…had he seen my arrival upon the island and recognised me for a gentleman of means? I had little coin about me, but what dissuasionary effect could my protestations have upon someone intent on – hah! As these thoughts coursed through my sleep-addled brain, I heard all at once a quick succession of heavy steps. They crossed above me and stopped at what I could only surmise to be the edge of the roof. It was as if something had launched itself from its side. Then silence.

I must admit my cowardice confined me to my blankets. Perhaps whomever or whatever had been pacing above had heard my waking and decided against their initial plan. Perhaps it had been but a cat or some other nocturnal creature who had suddenly taken flight while exploring the cottage roof. Neither of these fully convinced me – and yet the fire began to warm me, my lids grew heavy and I slipped back towards oblivion. 

What strange sensory notions we have in that sliver of time twixt drowsiness and slumber: though it had been made up many hours previously, the crackling of the logs seemed to grow louder and more sumptuous than ever, and, as my eyes closed completely – though it sounds quite ridiculous to hear – I thought I saw a shadow interpose itself between my bed and the glow of the hearth.

Despite these nocturnal peculiarities, I rose refreshed. After another of Mrs Darroch’s bounteous meals – a hard oatcake with only slightly softer goat’s cheese – I approached my day’s labour with renewed vigour. 

Alas, I was disappointed. The sky was wan, the sun hidden as if shrouded in the sacks that had formed my bed and, despite my entreaties and enticements of coin, the scant handful of islanders would part with little information necessary for my survey. By late afternoon I began to grow homesick and hungered for the abundances of London, its steaming beef and ham shops, its oyster bars – even the homely baked-potato sellers. As I reflected on these comforts and realised that I would have to settle for the island’s meagre fayre, I considered that perhaps my waist could stand a measure of shortening. The owner of the pitiful island store was the most loquacious of the natives, by which I mean that I received two voluntary sentences and those only upon learning of my lodging with the widow Darroch: “Nae good al come af it – poor Feargas on Kennie. Ye should watch yersel’.” 

My stomach growled as I stalked back in the dusky light, treading carefully down into the dell in which the tiny cottage resided and prepared myself for another of the widow’s austere repasts. A coarse phrase from Smollett’s Sir Lancelot Greaves crept into my head – ‘for I bee so hoongry, I could eat a horse behind the saddle’ – and I smirked as I considered how mother would rebuke me for such crudity.  In hindsight, it was not the words of Smollett, but those of the storeowner to which I should have paid greater heed.

That evening, again installed by the fire, my host appeared to have relaxed slightly, going as far as to enquire on my day’s activities and evening’s rest. Mrs Darroch’s features remained grave and immobile as I praised St Roderick’s bracing sea air and distinctive granite, then remarked charitably on the thickness and sweet fragrance of the blankets and bedding provided to me. It was only this poverty of discourse that led me to mention the odd noises I thought I had heard in the dead of night. 

As I recounted the sound of the footsteps running across the roof, I was alarmed to remark that her eyes no longer lingered on the fire. Instead, they bore into mine. Her nostrils flared. On her one good hand, the whites of the knuckles stood out as she gripped the armrest; on her other twisted cudgel of a hand, the redness seemed to beat, as if infected with rage. I felt I had mistakenly stumbled into a patch where I was far from welcome.

“An didyae say the fire wes bricht?” she asked intently.

“Bricht?”

“Beg, lairge, lively!” she persisted, chiding me like a toddler for my comprehensional shortcomings.

“Yes! Very much so.”

She relented and turned her eyes back to the fire. The same softened look as the previous evening came upon her face. This time however it remained and I waited patiently. 

“Ye micht as weel hear it tellt true,” she began, her words tinted by both reluctance and what seemed to me a great unburdening. “Ye wull nae be ’ere lang noo.”

“This but and ben wisnae ay sae lonely. Ye asked aboot mah fowk: mah man wis called Feargas – a stout, bonny lad wi’ hair black as nicht. Oor wee laddie wis called Kennie – ainlie seven months, bit wi’ locks starting tae graw jest as black. Twenty summers ago, there hud bin a snowfall unlike ony witnessed afore. Juist twa years before it, a similar snowfall hud sent mony families fae th’ island fur good. ‘Good riddance’, we said.” 

“But this time, th’ snaw wis doubly deep. We hud prepared of course. Like ony winter we hud stored up a stock o’ food, ye ken, bit this wis lik’ nething a’body – even th’ oldest folk – hud ever seen afore. Th’ snaw hud trapped us. It lay aroond the cottage seven foot deep. We wur cauld. So cauld ye cuid see yer breath hang before ye like a ghost. Bit then we grew hungry. Even though we counted oot th’ food intae wee portions ‘n’ ate paukit meals, th’ supply dwindled doon. Hunger gnawed thro’ us as we ate anythin’ we cuid – rotten tatties, clumps o’ moss, boots n’ belts all boiled up with snow water. Soon Kennie hud nee milk fae me. The wee boy teuk tae greetin’ maist o’ th’ day ‘n’ all o’ th’ night.”

“Excuse me.” I hardly dared speak lest I stem this great and unexpected flood of words. “Greeting?”

“Cry-in’,” she translated, sourly. “Bawlin’.”

“Ah,” I replied, as apologetically as possible; though many of her words were hard to “ken”, I was ravenous for more. 

“So,” she resumed, “whin we hud barely enough strength tae staun, Feargas decided there wus nething else fae it. He wid huv a go tae git tae anither hoose – mibbie try tae reach Mccallister’s tavern, that wis up oan higher ground ‘n’ wid surely hae braved th’ waither better than this paukit steid. He pushed thro’ th’ thatch ‘n’ pulled his-sel onto th’ roof. Ah tellt him he wis mad bit he wouldnae stop – he hud tae huv a go tae save me and wee Kennie. He bolted ‘n’ jumpt as far as he cuid, thinking he cuid mebbie swim thro’ th’ snaw. He couldnae. Even if he cuid normally, he jus didnae hae th’ strength.

She was staring into the firelight again. Lost in her recollections.

“I managed tae pull him back up onto th’ roof, bit he hud bin in th’ snaw fur sae lang. He wouldn’t stoap shimmyin’ ‘n’ babbling. Ah made up a kip juist lik’ that one.” 

I regarded the bedding wherein I had passed the previous night and shivered.

“And then ah wrapped him up fernent th’ fire. He wis shimmyin’ sae much it a’maist seemed lik’ he wis laughing. A thought it wid be best fur him tae bide in ’ere wi’ Kennie ‘n’ th’ warm fire and…”

I had never seen someone so overflowing with speech come to such a halt. How I wish I had counted the seconds that she sat, mouth parted, unmoving, with the shadow of the flames playing about her face, her good hand involuntarily rubbing at the red claw of her other.

“And…?” I ventured, finally.

The trance was broken.

“Nothing. Forget ah said anythin’. Ye shuid git yer rest, if yer aff tae hae anither earlie stairt th’ mornin’. A’m aff tae kip. Ignore whit ah said. Ye won’t be ’ere much langer.”

I began to speak, but she was deaf to my protestations, possessed, it seemed, by a sudden impulse to leave the room and blow out the remaining candles. My rationality grappled with my imagination as she did so hastily. She paused as she opened the door to her bed chamber.

“Ar ye a man of god, a Christian, Mr Tinderton?”

I took this as an audacious piece of impertinence. “I, madam, am a geologist,” I returned proudly.

“Ah thought as much. Sleep weel.”

It would be other than truthful to say I was not perturbed. Could I leave the cottage? Yes dear reader, I did consider this course of action, albeit briefly. It was dark. I had little means of navigation to the shore. The boatman would not be present without prior engagement. Then I reflected upon how weak and disappointing was such a speculation. Was I to return to London with no findings? Was I to let down mother and insult all her investments in my scientific endeavours? What would Fenbrush think of me if he were to discover my flight and inability to uncover the scantest of geological specimens? With a rush of elation, at that moment, I remembered my axe head. I disinterred it from the depths of my case and held it tight as I reposed, once again on the sacking. I ignored the possibility of these being the very sacks on which the late Feargas had slept, shivering from his plunge into the snow. Under my breath, I scoffed at the widow’s parting question and comforted myself with the fact that in the deeply unlikely event of my being disturbed, my assailant – whomever they may be – would face not a worthless crucifix or other such talismanic nonsense, but the raw edge of the flint between my fingers; let them best one of the most ancient and effective weapons ever wrought by the hands of man.

As I waited for sleep to descend, I once again took solace in that most mundane yet sumptuous of pleasures: the crackling of the fireplace. The widow Darroch was, despite her paltry meals, no skinflint when it came to building up my fire at least. How can one describe the sound accurately? Yes, there is the crackle undoubtedly. It is so commonplace a sound one may never fully focus upon it. But I did. In that chill-ridden cottage with its shadows and icy history, it was my sole comfort. The smaller pieces cricked as they flamed and fell. The central logs, hummed and trickled with amber flame while the drawing breath of the chimney created a low, steady groan. Every now and then a sharp snap would sound and the limbs of the wood collapse a little into the seething embers. I closed my eyes, exhausted more by Mrs Darroch’s revelations than by my day’s perambulations and faded into sleep.

The crackling woke me. This was not the sudden jolt of footsteps as with the night before, but an intensity of noise than had grown unbearable. Crackling all around me. In accompaniment, the room felt hazy and intensely warm. I scrabbled at the hefty blankets swaddled almost chokingly tight about me. I needed air. It was difficult to focus – as if I was in drink or the victim of some heavy sedatives. How could she sleep through such a cacophony?  Through the orange swim of light and din of drawing breath, I saw it. The faint shape I had glanced the other evening, was now undeniable. A dark collection of limbs, made shadowy by its position in front of the fire. Whatever it was, it was hunched over with its back to me. 

Without my conscious bidding, my hand gently scooped up the flint which had fallen from my grip in my slumber. I held it tight and dared to rise, slowly, from the bedding. The room was still beating with abominable, near hellish, heat and I began to feel faint as I rose to my feet. Drawn by some entrancing pull, I placed one stockinged foot before another, feeling the boards complain as I ventured towards the dark figure. The crick and snap of the fire seemed to enclose me, at once in front and behind and all around my ears. The trickle of the fire’s slow chew lay sickly under these harsher sounds. It was then I noticed the jerking movements of the hunched form before me and how its sharp motions coincided with those oppressive fireplace cracks. Somehow, the fire and the figure were one. As I neared its right side and felt my grip tighten around the flint, I perceived it more clearly. It was human in shape but almost apelike in movement. It sat cross-legged, head bowed low, its limbs consumed with some highly dextrous activity. There was a hard crack as the creature snapped something in its lap. My brain swam as it reconciled the sounds of the fire with that of the fiend. I rounded upon it and raised my free hand to my mouth in terror. 

The figure, now clearly a man, was hunched over a blackened object. Even had it perceived me, it paid me no attention, so free and flowing was the blood that ran from its chin as it ate. It chewed ravenously, continuously, the smacking of its scarlet lips and cheeks merged with that of the fireplace. Swallowing down another mouthful, it raised part of the charred thing in its arms and I winced as it snapped apart something with unblinking force. It was only when it began to gnaw at the thicker end of the stump that I saw the four still smoking fingers and tiny thumb at the other, wriggling in the blazing firelight as if still possessed of life. What occurred next evades my precise recollection. I remember raising the flint to bring down whatever judgement I could upon this form and then its head turning to mine as if it had only just noticed my presence. Instead of the expected terror or defiance, it wore a gleeful expression – how I wish I could forget – a glassy stare of pure wretched indulgence, elation like that of a boy given a freshly stuffed box of Turkish delight and told they are all his, every last cube. I heard the flint drop from my hand onto the bare boards of the cottage. At the sound, then the grinning creature’s face fell and for a moment, it seemed to clasp the remains of its horrific meal tightly in its arms.

It lurched forward, pitching headlong into the fireplace itself. The wiry form of Mrs Darroch was behind it. With all her strength, she was pinning the head of the bloody man into the centre of the flames, not with her good fleshy hand, but with the fiery red stump. She bit her lip, a crimson thread running from it, as she held the face of the shrieking creature, first over the licking yellow and then forcing it down into the glowing white of the embers. As the skin and fat of the man’s cheeks began to run molten, bubbling in the heat and the black hair caught alight, the walls of the cottage span and I passed from consciousness.    

When I regained my faculties, I was sitting once again in the larger of the cottage’s rocking chairs. I was propped up, a blanket around my shoulders, the acrid tang of whisky on my lips. It took a moment for me to recall the horror I had just witnessed. The cottage’s disorder confirmed it as no mere illusion: disturbed embers smouldering on the floor; the widow’s chest palpitating with the energy she had expended; the hem of her nightgown smoking where the red stump had been plunged into the fire. But where now lay that hideous, cannibal that Mrs Darroch had so ruthlessly dispatched? Where also was the unfortunate…thing it had been eating? Their disarray remained though both appeared gone.

“Ah suspect you’re wondering who that wis?”

I must admit, that, being so concerned with my immediate safety, my brain had not yet reached such an avenue of questioning. But now she had voiced it, I could think of little else.

“Ah didnae think he wid come again sae soon. Mibbie it’s th’ presence o’ anither mon in th’ hoose.” She looked doubtfully at my person. “Mibbie not.”

“So was that – ”

“Feargus? Aye. It was. Lest nicht, ah didnae tell ye everything.

I waited, unwilling to risk the possibility that, at any moment, she might choose not to relate any more of her tale.

“Ye heard aboot him trying tae swim thro’ th’ snaw tae git us hulp. They wur his footsteps ye heard lest nicht.  Efter ah pat Feargas tae kip fernent th’ fire, ah went tae bed as usual. Ah knew I’d wake tae check oan him ‘n’ Kennie soon, being a light sleeper. Mercifully, Kennie wis tae weak tae greet that nicht. Beyond wrappin’ Feargas up ‘n’ giein’ him a dram o’ whisky – th’ ainlie thing left tae consume in th’ hoose by that point – ah didn’t ken whit tae dae. Ah ignored th’ gnawing o’ hunger in mah stomach ‘n’ fell asleep.

“Ah woke up aboot a oor o’ sae efter. Whither ’twas juist worry or th’ soonds he wis making, ah didn’t ken. But as ah left th’ kip ‘n’ approached th’ bedroom door, ah wis sure ah cuid hear something unfamiliar oan th’ ither side, something ah hadnae heard for a while: laughter. Feargas wis giggling.

“Th’ fire wis bult up far beyond th’ day’s ration we hud agreed. He wis crouching doon by th’ fire, laughing ‘n’ chewing something. At foremaist, ah thought he’d found some auld meat we hud forgotten aboot or mibbie he hud snared some wandering wild animal: baith mad suggestions, ah know. Th’ reek o’ cooked flesh hung in th’ air. It sent me pure ravenous, lik’ a beast stirring ben me. That’s whin I saw Kennie’s wee crib was empty.

“‘Where’s Kennie?’ I said, and not stopping for a reply, I said it again, louder. ‘Where’s Kennie!’ He turned a look ower his shoulder ‘n’ a clocked th’ glint o’ a smile in his face. It wasn’t wholly devious bit joyful too – it’s hard tae explain. Bit that look tellt me it all. Ah grabbed th’ back o’ his heid, nearly pul’in oot a clump o’ locks, ‘n’ forced his face intae th’ fire. Ah cuid see mah haun taking th’ heat as he hollered, betrayed. He wis a lairge lad, mah Feargas, bit some kind o’ power flowed thro’ me ‘n’ mah haun stayed doon, despite his flailing, despite mah shrieks o’ pain, despite me seeing th’ very skin o’ mah hauns melt intae this!”

I jumped as she banged her stump hard on her armrest; it appeared to have suffered no injury from the second plunge into the fire. 

Some moments of silence passed. 

“And your son?” I said, quietly.

“Ah buried him whin th’ snaw thawed. Whit wis left,” she replied, unblinking. “Twas a week efter ‘n’ ah wis nearly deid masell. Aye ah tore at th’ icy earth, mah stump ‘n’ mah guid haun, ‘til ah hud made a wee hole tae let him rest. Bit tonaet, we ken rest.” And I knew she wasn’t addressing her words to me anymore. “Until he’s hungry again, we kin rest.”

The next morning, I trudged up to the highest elevation of the clifftops and let every piece of my equipment topple from the edge. Hammers, chisels, compasses, notebooks – all were swallowed by the grey, foaming waters. I have no further desire to dig up buried things; as with many things, I can no longer stomach the idea. Speaking of stomachs, I succeeded in that regard at least. Mother would be quite surprised to see my reduction in rotundity, were she still here. Hah – I am quite the rake now! I don’t believe it was my failure of correspondence that brought her trouble on, but who can be sure of anything now? I find the right mosses can be quite palatable and mushrooms need not be cooked to be nutritious.

On discovering how I had disposed of my equipment, the store owner (MacCulloch, I have since learned he is titled) chided me bitterly for the waste. In response, I inquired how much coin would convince him to construct the little shack in which I now sit and set down my thoughts in the yellowy pages of my one remaining logbook. It is hard to see clearly – no, not even a candle. Not one single match. The light will fade soon. I know they whisper around the isle. With the passing of years, I care no longer. 

Rereading my account, I now see how like a fire this setting down of things truly is: from the first twitches of spark, the flames of my speech arose, words dancing and stoking my memories. In their wet, inky light, I admit I felt something of my former self again. But flames fade. Die down. Ink soaks. Dries. I am embers now and sunken words. 

She used to leave me little plates outside my door; how shamefully I recollect my earlier begrudgements of her meals. But they have stopped. The tin dish from the last one, remains empty, uncollected. I can hear beads of rain bouncing from its smooth face. Dark is here. I will reach for another blanket and feel the sweet coarseness of its embrace. I can set down no more.

Jonny Rodgers is a writer of poetry and short fiction from the Northwest. He completed a doctorate in Contemporary Fiction at the University of Manchester and now teaches in South Manchester. His publications include: EnvoiStandInk, Sweat and Tears, The Morning StarThe Cadaverine, ProleBest of Manchester Poets: Volume 2 and 3, and Cake. Find him on Twitter @JonnyDRodgers.

photo by Headway (via unsplash)

Openings—Roseline Mgbodichinma

The grave is the colour of an open mouth,
What if death is just people falling off a cliff
And softly landing into the deep?
My mother says spirits dance
But with a whirlwind of voices
So I lick my fingers and smack my lips
This is how to lure a ghost into a tap dance
This whir is the reason for thunder
Or the whips that strain itself
Through the needle of God’s eye
And calls itself a drizzle

Roseline Mgbodichinma is a Nigerian writer, poet and blogger who is passionate about documenting women’s stories. She is currently pursuing a law degree and actively freelancing. Her work has been published on Isele, Native Skin, Down River Road, Amplify, JFA Human Rights mag, Blue Marble Review, Kalahari Review, Indianapolis Review, The Hellebore and elsewhere. You can reach her on her blog at www.mgbodichi.com where she writes about art, issues and lifestyle.

photo by Jari Hytönen (via unsplash)

Bones of Time—Taylor Rae

The mountain is as cold and grey as your arms. I carry your coyote-gnawed vertebra. It pulses in my pocket, an ossified heartbeat. 

The wind kisses my neck, and I shiver.

Six years of bone-hunting, and every time you’re hidden better than the last. Each bonescrap brings you back for a few precious minutes.

The landmarks bristle with memory. Here’s the embankment edge I spilled down the mountainside. The thicket I landed in, leg broken. The brush you vanished into, looking for help. Beyond that, your unmarked grave, everywhere and nowhere.

Search and rescue found me, but they never found you.

Beside me, pine needles twitch. Your vertebra hums like a dowsing rod as I chase your ghost deeper into the forest. You hint me onward, crackling sticks, scattering leaves until there you are, in an abandoned foxhole: your left mandible, yellowed, meatless.  

I smile, vision blurring. “Found you.”

You murmur behind me, snowfall-soft, “Found you first.”

I lean into your foggy arms and whisper, “Did you meet any clever foxes?”

You’re only empty air, but I know you smiled. “Only you.” You pause. “That’s the last one, babe.”

I hug your jawbone. If I wait until nightfall, I might become a ghost in your arms. It wouldn’t be the worst fate.

“Let’s go home.” You wind-kiss my neck again. “Before it gets dark. You can tell me what we’ll do when we get there.”

We walk home together, and your fingertips feel like the sky just before it rains.

Taylor Rae is a professional cave troll, hidden away in the mountains of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. She likes avoiding her neighbors, playing ukulele, and longboarding. Most of her stories involve spaceships and/or magic. She is the winner of the 2021 NYC Midnight Short Story Contest, and her work appears with Flash Fiction Online, PsuedoPod, and Fit for the Gods from Vintage Books. More at www.mostlytaylor.com.

photo by Ta Z and Annie Sprat (via unsplash)

Par Temps de Pluie—Emma Timpany

I squeeze my way through the crowded lobby and down a passageway lined with marble sculptures to a bright white atrium and a curving marble stair. At the entrance to the gallery, I show my ticket for the exhibition and the guard waves me through. Upstairs, on the white walls, hang paintings of clouds, sprayed chalk on slate, simple and ethereal, traces of the scantest precipitation created by a desert-dwelling artist homesick for English gloom.

In the next room, rooks on branches, a tumble of stark black-whiteness, dead stalks of sunflowers carrying heads of rotting seed. And in front of a giant painting of an avalanche, you, you, you: the closed door of the past I am not ready to knock on, to open and step through.

A frozen moment. From the first time we met there was something between us. I wouldn’t call it love, exactly – it was more like recognition. I open my mouth to say your name but then, no, no. I turn. I do not know where to begin. I do not know what to say. 

The room, so quiet when I came in, is fuller now, the slide and slap of people in the high white space, the blurry wave-sound of traffic in the darkening lane below. A feeling then, a burning ear, a prickle of attention, the old instinct which tells us we are known, are seen. Though my back is turned, I know you’re looking, know that soon the snow will slide off the mountainside like a wall. How cold that weight, the huge crush, the white silence. I hear it groan and loosen and I run.

Outside, in Piccadilly, I lose myself in crowds. It’s fully dark now. I walk these streets as I have always walked them, in summer’s warmth and winter’s dark. This place was once low forest, birch and hazel, marginal land near the edge of the Thames. Despite the hardness of the grey paving, I feel it still beneath my fur-lined boots; earth springy with moss and damp, softened by the river’s thousand fingers creeping outward through the soil. Thousands of years ago, people came here from every corner of the country to worship the river’s dark water. They carried with them the smoothest, whitest, roundest stones they could find, offered them to her great current with their praise and prayers. Here, once, little birds sang loud in the sedge, clung tightly to the swaying reeds, their tiny, dun bodies hidden in the flicker of golden-green sunlight sieved through leaves.

Long gone the marsh, but a scent of it’s still here, beneath these wet, grey slabs. I follow them into Green Park, stripped of its flowers by order of a long-ago queen. You never gave me flowers. Only a sign, once. A white envelope with my name scrawled on it; inside, a single blade of fresh, green grass.

It’s so hard to see things as they are. That’s why, although I always loved it and love it still, I moved away from here. My gaze was downcast, my hearing and my seeing, all my senses dimmed. Too much blue-grey hard stone, too much traffic, the constant jostle of bodies. I needed earth and trees, the scent of rain on granite, cloud shadows tearing like wild horses across fields and red-brown cliffs. I settled by the rock-dark, boiling ocean, under the reaches of a star-struck sky. Such things I’ve seen since I’ve been there. Yesterday, out at sea, a line of lemon-green was resting on the waves, and through the wet, a washed-out rainbow stretched between two headlands like a net.

Light snow is falling. I retrace my steps through the park, from whose fine beds a foolish king picked flowers for his mistress. In the church where Blake worshipped as a child, I slide into a pew. The flowers near the altar – guelder rose and amaryllis, poppy heads and amaranthus – speak to me of what could have been.

That last night on Long Acre we ate a meal of oysters, scallops, lobster, sitting on high stools at a marble-topped table. We drank tall flutes of gold-grey champagne, tipped back our heads to swallow the pearls of scented bubbles melting in our mouths. You asked if I could taste the flavours hidden within the wine – hints of dark cherry and vanilla, blood orange and saffron – and I thought for a moment I could sense them on my tongue, as strange and haunting as a half-remembered song. The air hung heavy from days of tired heat, from burning hours of sun; from the mouth of the underground rose a fetid, fumy, swampy, dirty dampness. But always, with you, that sense of implacable cold, rising from the table’s marble surface to fill the empty oyster shells and the cracked lobster husks, spent crescents of lemons, heaps of crushed ice melting on silver platters. 

On the way home it rained, warm and sweet. We sheltered under the trees in the park, the place stripped of its every petal by a queen’s fury. When a flock of gulls wheeled and screamed above us, you said it meant there was a storm at sea. I looked up and watched the soaring wings. There, caught in the streetlight, the kite of a raptor flew over the rooftops of the Ritz.

That night I couldn’t sleep. I watched the rain thicken and boil and turn to storm. Dreamless, I listened to the rain’s long song. Even after the oysters and the promises, I was fading, a spark off a flint thrown far from its kindling, a ghost at my own feast.

In the morning, when you’d left for work, I packed my things and ran from your perch amongst leaded roofs, attic dormers and copper domes, past towers whose mercury facades glimmered and faded in the steam. In the flowerless park, I stopped to draw in breath. Nearby, snow geese and swans circled in water made dun green by effluent and weed. I hunched to ease the tightening in my chest. The choice was clear: to run, or to spend my life here, crouched beneath high, unstable peaks. That night, I caught a train west, the sleeper to the sea.

Footsteps on the path behind me, echoing in the winter dark, wanting to turn but not wanting to, not wanting to know, to see, to hear. The heartbreak and the blame. 

You in the park, on the green-painted bench, a sparrow eating crumbs from your fingers. You in the restaurant, holding the white-grey oyster shell, tipping it up to your lips. A series of flashes: marble-topped tables, silver platters, lobsters in their coral armour, lemon juice shivering on oyster flesh. The iodine tang of ocean, high, bronze cliffs, a wide, white, empty beach, the surf-song of the waves, the bluebell mirrors of the Porthmeor tide pools, the dazzle and the glitter of the sand. 

A charcoal sky empty but for a cloud so light and wispy it is barely there, a handful of vapour caught above the dry, hot earth, which holds within it every dream of home.

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. One lasting, deeper breath, and only then turn. Only then turn into the cold. 

So much rain on centuries of snow. Decades of snow, layer upon layer, built up until it falls – falls so that every light goes out, the village gone along with its people, the whitest whiteness that encloses, smothers, covers, and all that is and was beneath it, whitely lost.

Emma Timpany is a writer from the far south of Aotearoa New Zealand who has a lifelong love of the short story form. Her publications include a novella, Travelling in the Dark,  and the short story collections The Lost of Syros and Three Roads. She is co-editor of Cornish Short Stories: A Collection of Contemporary Cornish Writing  and editor of the forthcoming Botanical Short Stories: Contemporary Writing about Plants and Flowers. She lives with her family in Cornwall. 

photo by Hat Creative (via unsplash)

Hallow—Bex Hainsworth

An echo of a dead season.
November slips into the world
like a blackened afterbirth.

Pumpkins sag into a grotesque
mimicry of age on doorsteps
and in damp gardens.

Wallowing, rotten yolks: 
melting faces spit
seeds like knuckle bones.

Trees throw their arms open
to the wind, shivering at the root
with mushrooms and moss.

Time is an old house
with a creaking door.
Everything is edge.

And an antlered god walks
the woods with the stiff body
of the earth in their arms.

Bex Hainsworth is a poet and teacher based in Leicester, UK. Her work has appeared in The Coachella Review, Atrium, Okay Donkey, bath magg, and trampset. Her debut pamphlet of ecopoetry will be published by Black Cat Poetry Press in 2023. 

photo by Sarah Murray (via wikimedia commons on a CC BY 2.0 license)

The Dripping Thing—Cat Voleur

“This house is haunted.”

Of course, Louis hadn’t listened. It sounded silly at the time. He’d been too arrogant, and the price had been too good.

“Excuse me?”

Now, it’s too late. Ascending footsteps can be heard throughout the entire house. The sound of wet feet slapping the hard wood echoes down the hall to his bedroom. Louis can count the seconds by the steady drip, drip, drip of the thing approaching.

“Nothing is coming for me.”

He says the words, but they are only a whisper and provide him no comfort. They sound false, even to his own ears. He cannot help but revisit in his mind the first conversation he’d had with the realtor about the place.

Her words had not surprised him half so much as the way she’d spoken them. She was so certain, so resolute, that he thought he must have misheard.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

She sighed. “I don’t like to participate in the gossip surrounding the properties that I show, but I like you Mr. Black. You seem like such a nice young man, and I’d like to be upfront with you about this house.”

Slap!

She paused at that point in her speech and Louis had just waited for her to continue. She seemed to be in a bigger hurry than he was.

Drip. Drip. Drip. Slap!

“There’s a thing that lives inside.”

The footsteps are at the top of the stairs.

“A thing?”

“A spirit, an entity. I don’t know what you’d call it. I’ll admit that I’ve never seen it myself — nor do I intend to. I only show this property midday, and I prefer to keep these appointments short.”

Louis had noticed that his tour had seemed rather rushed, but had been able to overlook it easily. He’d been more wrapped up in his excitement about the excellent condition of the suspiciously low-priced building — which was now starting to make sense.

There was something about her sincerity on the subject that unnerved him, but he did his best to brush it aside. “With all due respect, I don’t really believe in that sort of thing.”

The footsteps stop.

“You will.” She met his gaze and there was a look in her eyes that seemed to scream at him, though her voice remained flat as she spoke. “If you buy this house, you’ll start believing. There’s something in there that changes people. Good people.”

Louis realizes that he’s holding his breath without meaning to. He has been for a minute now, waiting for the footsteps to resume. He forces himself to inhale, and succeeds only with effort. His body is working against him. There’s an uncomfortable tightness in his chest.

“This may not be the house for you.”

Only it had been. He’d fallen in love with the architecture when he’d first seen the listing, and touring it in person had reaffirmed the notion that he had to have it. The place was perfect. It hit every point in his checklist.

Terror grips him. From the far end of the hallway, he hears another drip. It sounds slightly louder than the one before. Closer.

The relative seclusion suited his tastes.

Drip.

The interior was spacious, but not entirely impractical.

Drip.

There was room on the property to expand into something truly impressive if his business were ever to truly take off.

Drip.

And it had been twice the size of anything else in his price range. Not to mention the land surrounding it.

“It’s just that this house has everything I’m looking for and then some. But you don’t need to worry. I’m not easily spooked.”

“You’re someone who appreciates facts. I understand. SO here are the facts.”

Drip.

“In the ten years that I’ve been selling homes in this area, I’ve sold this place more than a dozen times. That kind of turnaround is unheard of, especially out here.”

Drip.

“None of the owners have inhabited the house more than a week, and all of them have been quick to sell — usually at a great personal, financial loss.”

Drip.

“Everyone who has spent so much as a single night in that house has reported seeing things that simply cannot be explained away after.”

“There isn’t anything in that hall. I just let that silly ghost story get in my head.” he says. His voice lacks the conviction he seeks.

“I did the research,” he tries again. He wants his heartbeat to slow back down. He wants his breathing to feel normal. He wants to quit being scared. “I did the research, and I couldn’t find anything about this place.”

Louis believes that records of anything suspicious can be found online if a person knows where to look. He always knows where to look. He has used the internet to dig up all kinds of information on just about everything. He has never bought something that he has not personally and thoroughly investigated through this method. Of course, he researched the house.

It turned up clean. There are no horror stories online surrounding it. No bad ratings. No police reports. There’s nothing but his realtor’s words to warn him about the house that is now his.

Drip. Drip. Drip. Slap!

His heart stops at the sound of another footstep on the far side of the hall.

“It’s not her.”

Drip.

“There is no her.”

Drip.

“Old buildings make all sorts of sounds, and they just seem a lot louder outside the noise of the city.”

Drip.

“There’s no such thing as ghosts.”

Only he believes now what he didn’t believe yesterday. He believes that there is such a thing. He believes this because he has no other way to rationalize the thing he saw in the bathroom mirror.

The dripping thing.

It is humanoid and dark. It has slender, almost feminine outlines. Its features are shrouded in shadows. It quivers at the edges, where it’s most translucent. It drips constantly. There is an almost smoky stain in the tub downstairs. The thing left that stain with drops of transparent, black liquid that fall from and perhaps make up its body.

He believes that it was real. That he saw it there. He believes he hears her dripping in the hallway.

“I just let the realtor get into my head,” he whispers into the darkness. It is so very dark in his room.

He has yet to fully settle into the new home. This first day has been moving boxes and dragging his mattress up the stairs by himself. His friends won’t be able to make it out until Monday, and not a bit of furniture is properly assembled. It’s only now he realizes how devoid his room currently is of the little electronic lights to which he is accustomed.

Drip.

The expensive desktop that he runs nearly 24/7 is across the hall, waiting to be set up in his office. It cannot offer the comforting glow of its screen.

Drip.

There is no alarm clock plugged in, with its red LED numbers.

Drip.

No charging light on his phone.

Slap!

No phone.

Fear seizes him as he reaches for his phone only to find it missing. Not only is the sound drawing nearer, but he doesn’t even have the ability to reach out to someone at his fingertips. It’s only rarely that he finds himself without a device of some sort. In his exhaustion though, he hasn’t brought a single electronic to bed. Not even his phone.

“It must be downstairs,” he says. 

Past the ghost, he thinks.

He shakes his head, as if to disregard his own foolishness. It doesn’t work. The icy pit in the bottom of his stomach will not go away.

He tries to blame the solitude of the location. The realtor. The utter darkness. Never in his life has Louis been so disconnected from everyone and everything.

That thought is enough to terrify him on its own.

Drip. Drip. Drip. Slap!

“This is ridiculous.”

He will not cower, he decides. He is not some scared boy. He throws the blanket off himself and stumbles blindly toward the bedroom door. He is determined to settle the matter once and for all.

“It isn’t like in the movies.”

His hand clenches tightly around the doorknob, but does not turn it. He remembers more of their conversation against his will.

His realtor’s voice was hollow once he’d signed the paperwork. Resigned. “It’s not a gradual thing that will ease you in. One night is all it will take.”

Yet here he stands, having moved in anyway after pouring every cent he had into the place. His resolve wavers in much the same way the transparent, dripping, outline of the woman wavered earlier in his periphery. He wants to believe she wasn’t there.

Drip.

He wants to believe she isn’t standing there dripping on the other side of his door.

Drip.

He wants to swing it open and put his fears at ease. He wants to be greeted with an empty hallway.

Drip.

He lets go of the doorknob in defeat.

He isn’t sure.

He doesn’t know that the hallway will be empty. In fact, he doesn’t think it will be. He especially doesn’t know what he’ll do if his entire belief system is, in a single night, proven to be false. The thought of this scares him away from the door and back to the warmth of his bed.

He’s ashamed of his illogical thoughts and his cowardice alike. Still, he doesn’t regret the decision. The stakes were simply too high to be tested. He is more comfortable in the cozy life of a skeptic. He does not wish to have his world view questioned. He likes having a life he understands.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

“Just a leaky faucet,” he tells himself. He pulls the blanket tighter around his shoulders to cancel out the chill of his fear.

He does not believe that there’s a leaky faucet.

He does believe that he’s won. For tonight, at least. The house has not shown him anything that can change him beyond repair. He has not seen the thing inside it standing before him with much clarity. It can all still be explained away soundly. He feels right not to have turned the knob.

Click!

The door swings open.

The sound approaches.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

previously published in The Sirens Call, issue 49 (Spring 2020)

Cat Voleur is a writer of dark, speculative fiction and co-host of the Slasher Radio podcast. Her day job consists of script writing for ever-growing YouTube channels focused on media breakdowns. She currently resides in a house with her army of rescue felines. In addition to her writing, she can often be found reading, gaming, or pursuing her passion of fictional languages.

catvoleur.com

photo by James Frid and FWStudio (via pexels)