Likeness—Jane B. Parker

Kate and I don’t go down to the village very often, we have everything we could want here at home and could have anything delivered. But when she becomes so restive it virtually causes the air to hiss, I give in, and we cut what should be a three-hour drive across the dusty plain down to one. 

I figure it’s too late in life to learn Spanish so Kate handles all the interpersonal interactions. She could be telling the shopkeepers anything about me while I keep my hands in my pockets and nod along. She’s so popular, a comedian in any context. Always determined that we use cash so there are pennies for the street children. 

While we’re in the neighbourhood Kate makes me go see Dr Raul for a quick check on my heart and hypertension and insists on hearing the results herself, because as she tells him, “my husband could have a broken leg and I’d be the last to know it”.

Afterwards we walk along the boulevard and have a beer at our favourite little tin roofed dive. Or I do, Kate doesn’t drink and says, “I don’t know why you do either, it goes straight through you”. 

Arriving back home tonight, feeling a little tipsy and sunburned, I sense a soft presence under my foot as I open the door. What kind of mail, more threats? Despite our best efforts someone determined enough can find us, Likeness™ has always been a leaky ship. This here however is just a print, quite artfully made, silver gelatine I reckon. It’s a family portrait; the family is holding a sign that reads ‘you brought us together again’. 

Yes, even after all this time, I can still feel touched by such news. And of course I feel appalled by the opposite sort, when I hear of someone using Likeness™ for fraud or abuse. 

“It was only a matter of time before the nexus of holograms, AI and data banks was worked into a consumer product. And ever since the code was made public domain in my last will and testament we have really no control over what people are doing with it,” is what my Public Relations Likeness™ has been telling people for years. 

But of late less bad news has been reaching us, perhaps enough safeguards have been worked in by now, I don’t know. I don’t control the updates any more. I have lost touch. I’m not even one hundred percent certain what year it is, those facts can be easily manipulated. 

In the morning Fernanda arrives, she’s a tour de force. Can get through the housework, maintenance the solar panels, and check us over for glitches all in an hour’s work. We used to have great laughs with her, but now her friendliness has a formal edge and I can’t always prevent her from being alone with Kate. 

“You’re going to cost that girl her job, if you keep asking to be erased,” I complain. But I know this fixation was inherent in my wife from the beginning, it can’t be altered. 

“You’re so naïve, you think everyone is human,” she replies.  

Indeed, I hadn’t thought of that. So now that I can’t find the will to think up jokes to tell Fernanda even the mornings are quiet. And I have writers block.

I’ve gotten to the point in my auto-biography when in my late years I willed my Likeness™ into perpetuity. But it’s a difficult phase because although I have all the data, my memos, my tapes, even the health of my REM cycles and heart rate, I can’t for the life of me remember what I was thinking or why I did it.

Though what keeps me up nights, staring into the flat blue vista of the desert, is whether I should tell the truth about Kate. What she doesn’t know is how having died so young we didn’t have much to work with, had to exercise some creative licence. At first I was delighted with these inconsistencies and thought they made her seem more alive, but now I see how she suffers I know she wouldn’t have chosen it. 

Going to town to dawdle like tourists and make believe at living is the only thing that will animate her now; but going out so often that it arouses suspicion is just about the only thing we can’t afford. 

The nights after these day trips she’s tired out and will sleep in the bed, which I appreciate, but otherwise she sleeps outside in the hammock at the furthermost point from the power grid.     

“Aren’t you afraid of animals, snakes? You hate spiders,” I protest.

“You should try it yourself,” she says. “When I can just look at the sky, with air underneath me like I’m floating. But the daylight comes so soon. You could ask them to make me an update like that, couldn’t you? Or maybe you could have, before they forgot all about us. God I would be so much happier…”

When she complains she’s so much like herself can’t help but I think, I really did do some incredible work in my time. I brought us together again.  

Jane B. Parker is a writer and photographer from South Africa. Her creative writing and reviews have appeared in Badilisha Poetry X-change, the Silver Birch Press blog, The Poetry Pea JournalDream Journal, and The Poetry Question. She can usually be found tweeting haiku and micro-poetry @nowiammyself.

photo by Radek Grzybowski (via unsplash)

Wish You Were Here—Gemma Elliott

The first person to contact the police was Mrs Melville, of Barnacle Crescent. She told them that she passed by the houses every day but had never noticed anything amiss. Mrs Melville didn’t know any of the residents of this neighbouring suburban street, but she knew that they always kept their gardens very tidy, and had nice cars and neat window dressings, so she could think of no reason for them to be anything other than polite law-abiding citizens. 

On Thursday morning, on her way to work at the bank, Mrs Melville passed down Anchor Road and noticed that not one of the eight households had returned their recycling bin to their property. This was noteworthy because the recycling bins are emptied on Tuesdays, and surely no person of sound mind would leave a bin on the street for 48 hours. Not a nice street like that, in a nice area like this. Mrs Melville filed this away as unusual but continued on to her workplace. 

On her journey home, the bins remained at large, and so Mrs Melville, requiring an answer to this puzzle, stopped her car and knocked on the eight doors of Anchor Road with no answer. There were no lights on inside, but cars were parked on driveways. She did notice that the small sailboat, usually wedged beneath a lean-to at 2 Anchor Road, was gone. Mrs Melville called the police but was told not to bother them with civil matters. They said that she could complain about a missed bin collection or a neighbourly dispute – they weren’t entirely sure which grievance Mrs Melville had – directly to the local council.

The second person to contact the police was Ernie, a delivery driver. Anchor Road was on Ernie’s schedule for the weekend, with four parcels of online shopping to go to three houses. Not one house answered his knock, and he tried them all in an attempt to get a neighbour to take in the parcels. It was really strange for nobody to be in; there was always some keen person who waits home all day for their delivery, but the reason Ernie called the police was that he discovered, when opening a letterbox to forcefully shove through a smallish parcel, that 7 Anchor Road was entirely filled with sand. The golden granules poured out onto his trainers and Ernie watched for several minutes until a live crab tumbled out and he turned and ran back towards his van. 

There was water leaking from beneath the door of 6, he now saw. The police took note of what he told them but didn’t ask any follow up questions. He stashed the four technically undelivered parcels in an empty blue wheelie bin and moved on.

The third person to contact the police was Andrea Murdoch, raising concerns about her sister and family who live at 4 Anchor Road. Andrea’s sister hadn’t turned up for Sunday lunch, and wasn’t answering her phone. Andrea had decided to leave going round to check on things until Monday, she has her own young family to worry about after all, but on Monday morning received a postcard from her sister, an old-fashioned beach scene with girls in frilly swimsuits and men sporting handlebar moustaches, that simply read: ‘GONE TO THE SEA’ in what was definitely her sister’s handwriting. It didn’t have a stamp. 

Only when the search term “Anchor Road” was flagged up as a repeat offender did the police launch an investigation but nothing that they found took them anywhere but to the water. They shovelled sand and seaweed, evicted jellyfish, contacted elderly anglers, plotted routes to the beach, enlisted snorkellers, questioned surfers, and found nothing. Yet it seemed, with no evidence to the contrary, that all of the families had indeed taken to the sea.

Gemma Elliott lives in Glasgow, Scotland and works in the charitable sector. She has recently published short fiction with Paragraph Planet and The Babel Tower Notice Board. Gemma is also the former co-editor of Letters to Barnacle and has a PhD in literature. She can be found on Twitter @drgemmaelliott.

photo by Philipp Klausner (via unsplash)

Full Moon Rise—Caroline Butterwick

You found me here, lying on the lawn, my bare feet pressed into the grass, my knees arched to the night sky.  

“I can’t sleep,” I said. 

“Neither can I,” you said. 

Though we’d only ever spoken to each other a few fragmented times, I clasped your thin wrist and dragged you to join me, to lie beside me, our nightdresses stroking our thighs.  

“I’m sorry,” I said, realising what I’d just done.  

You smiled, stayed. 

The next day I glanced at you when we passed in the corridor. Your milky skin, I decided, was gaunt and grey now I saw it in the sunlight. 

I lie sleeplessly delirious under each full moon, the bed always too lumpy, the pillows turned thin, the sheets suddenly and irreversibly too wrinkled around my feet. You must do, too.  

When another full moon waxed in, I took myself and my restless energy back into the midnight garden. Soon you drifted down the stone steps and over the grass. And again the next month, and the next. We are witches, living for the lunar cycle.  

“Will he find out?” you whispered as you lay beside me on your belly, your right leg tucked over mine. You smelt of sweet musty roses. 

“No. He’s a heavy sleeper.” 

Tonight, he’d been snorting in his sleep while I lay dwindling on the cusp of dreams, unable to shake the muggy room, hot with the stewed smell of me and him, each breath humid as it passed through my mouth. Out here, blanketed by buzzing night air, I lie in the dark and wonder how long I should stay here, waiting to have calmed and cooled enough to return to that room. 

Fingers brush against my leg, and now you lay down beside me, your breath cool on my neck. Curled into each other’s bodies, we drift in and out of tranquil sleep. I wake every so often to feel you still there, your arms wrapped around my chest, then sleep again.  

A cold wind snaps at me. I blink my eyes open. The black sky has melted to early dawn indigo, the quiet now abraded by birdsong. You must feel the change too, for you bury your face into my underarm and huddle closer, nuzzling.  

“We should go inside,” you say. “The others will be getting up soon.” 

In the hallway, the early sun tints your eyes bright pearls. You drag your fingers through my hair and gently untangle it, pulling out a wilted leaf.  

“Again tonight? Maybe, this time, my room?” you whisper. 

I try to find the best words to tell you how it’s a silly thing that takes hold of me only once a month – a lunar madness, lust – and it’s not otherwise grounded in this world.  

As the words begin to form on my tongue, I realise. The sky was dark all last night. There was no full moon. Maybe heavy clouds obscured it, but that’s not true. 

“Your room.” 

Caroline Butterwick is a writer based in Staffordshire. Her writing has appeared in a number of publications, including the Guardian and Mslexia. Her website is carolinebutterwick.com and she’s on Twitter @CButterwick.

photo by Ganapathy Kumar (via unsplash)

Brood Mare—Tim Goldstone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

photo by Andreas / adege (via pixabay)

Bridget Cleary’s Fingers—Morgan Quinn

  1. You watch her fingers dance, whispering magic into cloth, breathing life into fabric. Her hair is pinned up as she works, a soaring mountain, yielding to the graceful slope of her neck. Your hands long to trace its pale smoothness, touch the tense line of her jaw, taste the perfect tips of her delicate ears. Your lungs burn with un-expelled air and you wonder, with a thrill of fear, if it is your life she is breathing into the garment that pulses beneath her finger tips.

  2. A saucer of milk sits untouched by the hearth, which remains darkened by soot in spite of her ardent superstitions. Those willowy fingers of hers, so deft with a needle and thread – and God knows you love the magic they weave under dark of night – do not make light work of the housekeeping it seems. Disappointing. You twist the band of metal on your own plump digit; sigh despondently.

  3. Her fingers. They are like creeping spider legs, spindly and skeletal, reaching out towards you, pleading and desperate. Your throat constricts. Bile rises.

    This isn’t her.

    She hacks like a stray dog, blood flecks spatter the bedclothes. You stare at her handstitched nightdress, limp and lifeless against her sallow skin.

    In the hearth, a fire leaps, twirls, pirouettes, dancing the way her fingers used to. Her real fingers.
  1. A full moon. You dig beneath a Hawthorn tree, dry lips whispering a fervent prayer. The bundle at your feet is tied with string, like a gift. With mud-caked boots, you nudge it until it slithers into the hole with a muffled thud. The moon sidles from behind thick cloud, but you don’t look away in time. The pale light illuminates her fingers, lithe and brittle and black as coal.
  1. You sweep the hearth. Vigorously. Retrieve a band of burnished gold from the debris. She hadn’t shrieked and leapt up the chimney. That’s what happened to changelings in the stories. She had just shrieked. Loud and long.

    Until she stopped.

photo by Valeriia Miller (via unsplash)