DUM VIXI TACUI MORTUA DULCE CANO—Emily Macdonald

WHILE I LIVED, I WAS SILENT.  NOW THAT I AM DEAD, I SING SWEETLY.

He starts by constructing the harpsichord spine, the tail, and the cheek. He steams the bent-side curve over the whistling kettle, moulding it to a jig. The triangular shape appears—tight flushed dove-joints perfecting the sharp corners.

I help to hold the pieces in place, widening my eyes, a smirk on my face as he names the parts. He laughs and pretends to linger, tender, puff-chested as a cooing dove, tracing a finger, cupping a cheek. I flush—perhaps from the heat of the steaming kettle.

He planes the Northern spruce for the delicate soundboard, curling the blonde slithers of shavings to achieve the resonant thinness.

Sometimes I help by sharpening the blade of the plane, grinding it on the whet stone as he’s shown me, being careful to keep my movements consistent—no nicks in the blade—to keep those curls falling in elegant whispers, paper thin. Curls falling like the hair I once had.

He asks me if I think the boards are thin enough? He says he needs flex but there’s a danger of the boards splitting.  

We both know what too thin looks like. I sense his anxious glance as he holds the boards, like x-rays, up to the light.  I indicate the darkened areas where he needs to shave a fraction lighter.

He builds the rib supports, and to prevent vibration—the soundboard buzzing—he uses animal glue and D-clamps, spinning the nuts for a tight, snug fit.  

I help to tighten the clamps and wipe away excess traces of glue.  

I won’t know, he says, if it’s fitted tight enough. Not until the instrument is played.

Won’t it ruin everything I wonder, if he finds then a buzz or a hum? I can see it irks him.  Despite his skill—his care and attention—he cannot change what’s ahead. Neither of us can change what is waiting for me.

He secures the bridge and cuts the rose hole in the soundboard. He layers the rose discs in wood and parchment, carving an intricate, infinite arabesque pattern.

He bends over his work, imitating the drooping heavy heads of the damask roses I’m painting, a wreath to surround the sound hole.  

I want the same roses when the time comes. They will be in bloom as they’re budding now, promising musky perfume.   

He marks the keyboard pattern and cuts the precise pinholes. He frowns in concentration as he cuts out the jack rail. He cuts and shapes the keys.

It’s one of the keys to helping him, I’ve decided—repetitive tasks to distract from the cutting and needle pricks in my skin. Tasks to concentrate on, creation giving him respite from my decline.

He uses a jig to cut out his jacks and waxes their sides to prevent them from sticking.  

I lie back on the feathered pillows while he recites his progress. I close my eyes to see better the uniform waxed jacks. 

He uses a scalpel, cutting the quill of the feather to shape the plectrum. 

It’s a precision blade, the scalpel—I sense his distaste—but it’s the tool for the job. We both know he’s shaping the voice I no longer have. The voice taken from me. 

He attaches the tongue to the plectrum with a pivot and a spring to the body of the jack. He checks the action to make sure it plucks, then hits the jack rail that he lines with felt to muffle the impact. 

I know he takes great care with this task. These are blows he can soften; pains he can stifle.

He strings the instrument running the brass wires in pairs, precise parallel lines over the bridge. 

I sense his sorrow, stringing pairs, now I have passed, and he thinks he is all alone.  

He trims the plectra to find the perfect harmonic voice.

I help him to hear the resonant tone. I guide his hands shaping the tip of the tongue. 

He tightens the strings, turning the tuning pins to achieve the correct pitch.  

The tension is terrible—hands poised over the keys—but when he plays, he weeps with relief to hear my sweet singing.

Emily Macdonald was born in England but grew up in New Zealand. Fascinated by wine as a student, she has worked in the UK wine trade ever since. Since going freelance at the start of 2020, she has started creative writing. Emily has work published with Reflex Fiction, Retreat West, Virtual Zine, Globe Soup and Hammond House. In writing and in wines she likes variety, persistent flavour, and enough acidity to bite. https://www.macdonaldek11.com

photo by Thomas Quine (via wikimedia commons on a CC BY 2.0 license)

The Night Circus—Kate Leimer

It will appear, as circuses do, occupying the bare grass with tents and caravans, stalls and a Big Top, with a small kiosk at the entrance. 

When it leaves silently before dawn, you may find something else is missing: your bicycle, your dog, your brother, or even your soul.

They say once a whole village disappeared, leaving only a circle of bleached grass. A cold wind always blows over that spot. Even on a fine summer day, a cloud seems to pass across the sun.

It starts the way these things always do, with the arrival of posters. They appear at night, of course.

Instead of the bright red-and-yellow grins of clowns and cheerful stripes of the Big Top, you’ll see a dark tent, below a sharp yellow moon. The tent flap hangs open like a maw, revealing a slice of pale light inside. A hunched, long-fingered shape waits at the entrance.  Figures with blurred faces beckon. Some might look familiar to you but it’s hard to tell.

Free tickets will appear in shops, under stones in the park, on windowsills. Each purple rectangle announces: 

ᴀᴅᴍɪᴛ ᴏɴᴇ:
THE NIGHT CIRCUS
VISIT IF YOU DARE!

The purple writing looks stretched—too tall, spiky and jagged, rather than friendly and fun. You might feel a cold breath at the back of your neck when you pick one up.

At midnight, the music starts. A steam-driven fairground organ plays ‘Danse Macabre’, evoking images of capering, skeletal violinists. The sensible among us will cover our ears and pull the bedclothes over our heads, having first checked the doors and windows are safely locked. 

Are you feeling cold yet?

The foolish ones will dare one another, eyes bright and feverish, their laughter nervous.  Others, stumbling home from the pub, cutting through the graveyard, pass the church standing dark, its stout doors locked and veer across the field, summoned by the music. 

The young—impulsive, curious, casting stones up at bedroom windows—will tempt each other to an illicit night adventure as the music speeds on, round and round, faster and faster. 

If you dare cross the cold grass and approach the kiosk, you find there an automaton stretching out a bony hand for your ticket. Whirr, snap! Ping! The register rings and a soft, distant cackle announced your arrival.  The tent beckons—black, iridescent, shiny, like a crow’s wing.

Inside, you see the audience in the raked stalls; their clothes ragged; their bodies motionless.  You notice a smell like graveyard earth, rotten wood, feel the tickle of beetles’ feet against your skin and the gossamer of cobwebs on your face as you sit, waiting for the magic to begin.

Don’t taste anything you are offered, even if it smells like bread, popcorn, beer. There is no nourishment there, only distraction, illusion.  

Returning, you may find you have aged, your home occupied by strangers, your face and name unrecognised, unremembered except by a mossy gravestone.  Yet for you only hours will have passed. 

If you return.

An emerging writer, Kate Leimer enjoys stories of all kinds. Her work has appeared in Hysteria 7 Anthology 2020, The Wondrous Real Magazine, TL;DR PressBluesdoodles, Idle Ink, Orange Blush Zine, Cabinet of Heed, 81 Words, and been shortlisted by Cranked Anvil. When not writing, she works in a library.

photo by Joshua Coleman (via unsplash)

Things You Find in the Forest if You Go Alone and Don’t Know Any Better—Laila Amado

When the boys, who have been making fun of your sweater—the one mom made for you last year—taunt you from the old bleachers stretching along the back wall of the high school building, you…

a. Go home. Kick off your sneakers and leave them by the door, the way mom taught you to do. Notice how the house echoes with the odd, empty sounds, now that she’s no longer here. Drag your bag upstairs and spend the rest of the night doing homework. 

Of course, you don’t.

b. Hit one of the bullies in the face, see his blood drip down onto the battered concrete of the parking lot. Shrug your friend’s hand off your shoulder and wait for the inevitable summons to the Principal’s office.

Or, perhaps, you:

c. Run. Run until you’re out of breath, until the intersections of your hometown have fallen far behind, run to the edge of the world as you know it, where the trees spread their luscious green canopy far and wide.

The forest leans over you, dry branches stretching forward like crooked fingers. Beyond the trees lies darkness. When a whiff of pungent air, warm and wet like an exhaled breath, touches your face, do you…

 a. Pull out your phone from the back pocket of your jeans and, when you find there is no signal, not a single bar lighting up, plop down on the crumbling curb at the foot of the towering trees and start sobbing?

Or do you

b. Come closer, peer into the murky shadows beyond the tree line, see the winding trails snake between the mossy boulders, notice the flickering green lights in the mist seeping over the knotted roots, and feel anticipation trembling in your throat like a captured bird?

Then again

c. You’re no longer scared of the dark. Not since that night in late October, when a man in the khaki uniform of the sheriff’s department rang the doorbell, waking you up. From the top of the stairs you watched your father’s stern face pause, freeze, and crumble.

You make the first tentative step, and the forest envelops you like a blanket. The broad, pointed fronds of ferns twitch and quaver, fiddleheads poking through the leaves like question marks. Soon, the ground of the trail turns sodden, and the brownish muck soaks through your sneakers. You hop off the path. On your way deeper into the thicket, you find…

Check all that apply

a. A squashed soda can, flimsy metal, twisted like the hood of your mother’s Camry.

b. A sharp, crooked tooth.

c. A flower, red like the blood matted in your mother’s hair.

d. A golf ball with a painted green dot.

e. A piece of glass, light blue and glazed over, like your father’s eyes when he sits on a rickety chair in the kitchen, whiskey bottle clutched in his hand.

f. A piece of bone, more white than yellow, and brittle as his words, when he says your mother wasn’t supposed to be on that road. Don’t you know that she lied to steal a few minutes with that man, the one dead in the passenger seat? This is why she never came back home to you.

g. A cracked eggshell, empty and broken like your heart.

When the forest parts like a curtain and the vast swamp stretches before your eyes, do you…

a. Remember the tales of the thing in the bog, its cold and hungry mouth?

Or do you

b. Think of all the times your father said she didn’t love you enough and what kind of mother gets herself killed in a car accident, her lover’s hand still between her thighs?

Or perhaps you 

c. See a silhouette in the fog—a woman sitting on a hillock—and run forward, feet sinking in the squelching quagmire?

Of course, it isn’t her. What did you expect? It’s nothing more than a crooked tree stump with exposed roots and yet, if you blink away the tears and squint really hard, you can see in the cracks of the bark the broken likeness of her face. You can fix this, if you…

a. Fit the golf ball in the empty wooden socket, the painted dot—an iris, green and bright.

b. Let the tooth and the bone complete her face, fixing the fractures.

b. Twine the red flower into the twisted roots, into the strands of her auburn hair.

c. Place the broken eggshell and the shard of blue glass into her mossy lap like an offering.

And when the thing in the bog rises, stretching its limbs, wraps its bony arms around you, and pulls you down into the cold, shifting darkness of the swamp, you will feel…

a. no fear

b. only love.

Laila Amado writes in her second language, lives in her fourth country, and cooks decent paella. Her stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Rejection Letters, Milk Candy Review, Porcupine Literary, and other publications. In her free time, she can be found staring at the Mediterranean Sea. Occasionally, the sea stares back. Follow her on Twitter at @onbonbon7

photo by Balazs Kiss (via pexels)

The Roses Smelled of Copper—Taylor Rae

When she was fifteen, Joy cut out her heart so no one could find it. She thought it would hurt more. But once she pried her heart from the wet purse of her ribcage, she couldn’t feel anything. Not the blood dripping down her belly. Not her mother’s knifing words when she discovered the stains on her good towels.

Joy’s heart was still beating as she buried it in the garden, beneath the roses.

“I’ll come back for you,” she whispered.

Her heart drummed back like a fist on a grave: no no no.

But Joy left it there. Every year, the roses brambled thicker than the last; every year, her heartbeat went duller and duller.

Joy grew brambled too. Thorns bristled in her chest like secrets. No one, not even her mother, dared attack her now.

When Joy returned for her heart, she was no child anymore, nor was she alone. The man with her had no scar where his heart should have been.

The roses were bloodred and smelled of copper. Joy lifted the toothy vines. The ground was quiet and dead. Her heart unbeating. Joy clawed at the soil, rocks gouging under her fingernails.

“It has to be here,” she insisted.

The man reached out and squeezed her hand. He looked at her the way he had when he offered his own heart and she had nothing but thorns to give.

“We’ll find it,” he said. “If you let me help.”

Together, they started to dig.

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 Kristina Paukshtite (via pexels)

Nora Chases the Sea—Nick Tan

Nora chases the sea, spitting at the long, tattered line of foam curling away from her salt-scabbed feet. As she advances, the sea retreats, pulling out of the bay and putting itself away. Nora runs across the stripped littoral zone, shredding her soles on the rocks jagged with barnacles, kicking at the wriggling fish. The sea huddles as far back as it can, then stops. Then it surges toward Nora, released from the catapult of its own body.

Nora, please stop chasing the sea, the townspeople plead when their buildings and power lines are washed away, when their sewage pipes burst and their trains are derailed by the incoming surf.

Nora says, Not until it gives my sister back to me.

Nora poisons the sea. She sinks the crawling tankers and smears oil slicks across the water. She raises factories along the coast, churning out noxious brews, the effluent turning the sea orange and purple and black. The prawn farms die. The seabirds wash ashore in tarry lumps. The fish catch the edges of petroleum rainbows with their gills. The sea shawls itself in algae as thick and dark as stale blood.

Nora bathes in the burgundy waves, shouting, You take many but you always give them back, so why not her

In response, the sea retches out mats of rotting kelp tangled with dying luminescent things from the deep.

Nora stabs the sea: first with wooden poles, then with concrete piling, laying her foundations in the seabed. She builds a causeway, then a platform, then miles and miles of long-legged imitation land, upon which she sets the first blocks of her floating cities. She cuts the sea into canals. She drives the heels of her cities into reef and rock. She flattens the tides into languid swells. She skewers metal through the deepest trenches, straight through the beating, buried heart of the sea. The sea looks up through the grating of Nora’s cities, greased and groomed and tame as a pond.

The sea dies and Nora finds her sister half-submerged in the sand, desiccated sponges clinging to her skeleton. A starved hermit crab is using her skull as a shell. Her jawbone chatters as the crab shuffles among her teeth. Nora digs her sister out and cradles her fishbone ribs.

Nora, says her sister’s skull, the hermit crab creaking her sister’s teeth into speech, give the sea back to me.

It made salt and bones out of you, and still it wouldn’t let you come home, answers Nora. Ask for something else.

Her sister replies, Then how about a kiss?

Nora leans toward her sister’s bones and kisses where lips once bloomed, and the crab nesting in her sister’s jaw clips her and floods her mouth with salt and rusted iron, and she tastes the little cove where she and her sister used to dive off the rocks and emerge, spluttering, with fistfuls of jellyfish, their fingers and arms throbbing with the incandescent venom of the stingers, which they’d lick until their welts became infected, and if the tide was too low for swimming they’d lie by the rock pools and herd the tiny periwinkles into made-up constellations until their eyes were blurry with periwinkle-stars and the sun melted their brains into stupor.

The cliff collapsed. The cove is gone. The sea took it, along with her sister. And now, the sea is gone, taken by Nora.

Nora cries, and the sea ruptures through the membranes of her heart and pours out of her arid eye sockets, snatching away her sister’s bones. She steps ashore onto a new beach, damp sand streaked with stranded jellyfish. She moves inland, away from their stings. 

Neither sea nor sister follow.

Nick Tan is a Malaysian speculative fiction writer based in Aotearoa NZ. Their work has previously appeared in Apparition Lit, Translunar Travelers’ Lounge and Anathema. They can be found on Twitter @moxieturbine.

photo by Oliver Sjöström (via pexels)

Nursery Rhyme—Claire Schultz

Don’t go into the fairy circle late at night, they tell you.

Bad things happen in the fairy circle, they tell you.

In fact, don’t go into the fairy circle at all, not even in the broadest of daylights, they tell you.

If you ask them why, they look at you with tired, sad eyes. You can see it, but they don’t say it: Poor thing. You already know.

The fairy circle doesn’t look menacing; it barely deserves to be called a fairy circle. It’s a tumbled-over ring of stones and bruised mushrooms in a quiet half-clearing in the woods, just a little longer across than you are tall. It is mossy and gray-brown and looks very old, but not in the beautiful ancient sort of way. It just looks like it’s been all used up and forgotten. The grass is at once dead and overgrown with weeds, while the thick of the forest tumbles lushly towards you, the trees’ long, green branches and creeping vines curling around your arms and legs, wrists and ankles, begging come, come, that is a dead place, an emptied place, it has nothing for you, leave it to fade. 

The forest is very compelling.

Children used to play in the fairy circle, gathering hands and spinning in time with their songs. They laughed and twirled and tumbled. They kicked off their shoes and jumped on the stones. They came home with muddy feet and scraped knees. Their parents told them not to play there, but knew they would all the same.

You were one of those children once. The fairy circle was much greener then, and there wasn’t anything else to do except watch the cows grazing out by the river. They say kids don’t play out there anymore. They say the kids finally know what’s good for them, but kids never know what’s good for them.

They only call it a fairy circle because they don’t know what put it there. The stones, though worn and crumbling, were once decently large, and don’t belong to any quarry they recognize. They’ve just been there, in the middle of a clearing in the woods, as long as anyone can remember. None of them have ever seen a fairy in the circle, but some of them insist they’ve seen floating lights or heard voices late at night. They won’t elaborate, because that would mean confessing to having gone out to the fairy circle after dark.

You’re not afraid of the fairy circle at night. It’s just some rocks in the woods. Its power is long gone; what happened here is over now.

They found shoes in the fairy circle. They were a strange old-fashioned kind, a style no one had worn for decades. They were small, child-sized, and a little grass-stained, but otherwise nearly new.

They found a girl’s hair bow in the fairy circle, a long curl of fine blonde hair still clinging to it.

They found a schoolbag in the fairy circle. It was wet with dew and what looked like the stains of river water. The notebooks inside were filled out in a neat, careful hand, and all the letters were backwards.

They found a small pile of milk teeth in the fairy circle. 

They found the mayor’s cat, who had gone missing six years before, in the fairy circle. She was fat and cranky and blind in one eye, but she’d been like that before.

Don’t go into the fairy circle, they tell you, because you might come out sixty years later or six years earlier or not at all. Because it eats things up and swallows them down whole and spits up the detritus whenever it feels like it. Because it is a dying thing, but not yet all the way dead, and it is weak, but it is desperate. Its cries are pitiful now, and they are terrifying.

You don’t go into the fairy circle. You stand there, at the edge of the clearing, the tongue and teeth of the forest wrapped around your forearms, and you watch it. It is silent. Nothing happens. A gentle breeze shakes the leaves above you, but the dry brown grass remains stubbornly still. There are no voices. There are no floating lights. There is no singing or dancing or pile of lost teeth. It is graveyard-still, waiting to be allowed to decompose.

You stand there, and the bower that has ensconced you strokes your hair and cradles your back. There is no other movement.

A little red bird flies from the trees at the other side of the clearing and alights on one of the stones of the fairy circle.

Claire Schultz holds a BA in English Literature & Creative Writing from the University of Chicago and is currently pursuing an MPhil Education (Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature) at the University of Cambridge. Her fiction has been published in Electric Spec and Pigeon Review, among others. You can find her at clairerschultz.com, or making a fool of herself on Twitter @anotherclaire.

photo by Visually Us (via pexels)

The Fleshland—Surya Hendry

Today, the fleshland is brittle and aggravated. I step out to retrieve the mail, and each step I take shreds the skin below me, causing blood to well up and soak my slippers. I bend to massage the flesh, console it, but even my soft finger strokes provoke bleeding this morning. I grab the mail and race back to the house, leaving a small river in my wake. I chuck my slippers at the door. I consider telling my husband, Joshua, about this development. Instead, I step into the shower and scrub my feet and hands. I put on boots and venture out to see what is vexing the flesh. 

Joshua and I moved here six years ago. His programming job went remote and I had notions of becoming a homesteading housewife. We hunted for fixer-upper properties in the rural West, asked realtors if the land would be suitable for chickens and ponds and greenhouses. Joshua fell in love with this house’s sticker price and windowless basement office. Before we bought the house, I mentioned the odd quality of the ground. Joshua told me to think of everything I could do with ten acres, and I smiled wide, and we paid in cash.

Years passed. I tried to plant crops, but the land remained barren save for hair. I called in a local contractor to install a chicken coop, and he refused to dig into the land. Joshua and I communicated only in grunts and raised eyebrows. On the rare occasions when Joshua would initiate sex, I would think of how the skin looked near our house, how the pink and gray folds layered and rumpled, how the soft hair strangled my attempts at a flower garden. Joshua did not mind being pushed away. He had work. 

My friends from the coast would call with news of their children, their jobs and volunteering and marital problems. I stopped calling them back. I had nothing to say to them. Joshua did not require caring for or management. On the sunniest days, I would grab a bottle of aloe vera and a picnic basket. I would take lunch far from the house, where the skin became flat and leathery. I would walk until I found a patch of skin that was split and reddened from the sun, and massage it with the aloe vera and eat lunch beside it. 

Now, I walk across the entire property. The once-flat terrain is ridden with keloid molehills and cystic bogs. The ground is too slick for my boots to gain traction. I fall and crawl and stumble my way across the calloused land. 

Finally, I reach the edge of the property, where the flesh gives way to a dense, brambled forest. I immediately see the problem: a sturdy sapling has rooted itself directly into a softer patch of skin. I try to pull it out but only break it off at the base, leaving the roots intact. 

The next day, I return with a knife, to sever the roots from the earth. Every time I think I have found the end, I discover a new curve or twist. I scramble back home and find a shovel in the attic. I toss scoops of still-throbbing jelly flesh over my shoulder. Still, I cannot find the end of the root. Blood wells up below me and weighs down my jean cuffs. I place my left arm against the root and keep shoveling. Soon, my head is flush with the ground. Blood fills my nose and throat.

I think I am down here for a day and a night. I wonder if Joshua has noticed my absence. I imagine collapsing down here, getting swallowed up by the flesh, becoming a little tumor. If I scramble up the hole I have made, I can see that I’m digging closer and closer to the house. 

When I am nearly at the foundation of the house, my left arm slips off the root. I lose my footing and drop about ten feet and crunch onto my knees. For a moment, I gulp in my breath and try to swim upwards. I notice that my nose is breathing clear, warm air. I open my eyes. 

I am in something resembling a cave. Right above me is the hole I punctured, surrounded by dangling organic stalactites, which drip lukewarm water onto the ground. Soft cries are coming from the center of the cave, and I wade towards them. I find a creature, hunched into the fetal position, nose barely above the water. I bend to it. 

It takes me a moment to recognize the creature as a woman. For a long moment, I am only focused on her components: her muscles and tendons, her raw and wide eyeballs. Her body is bare from skin. I place my hand in hers. She grabs my wrist and sits up and stares at me. She opens her unlipped mouth. 

A needle is lanced through her tongue. She stays still and squeezes my hand as I ease the needle out of her mouth and toss it against the cave wall. Her cries diminish, and she buckles into my arms. 

Around me, the earth rattles. The hole in the ceiling sutures itself shut. I rise up, as if I have some chance of returning to the surface, but the woman tugs me down with tough fingers. I do not fight her. We sink to the base of the cave pool and hold each other. Fleshed and unfleshed hands intertwined.

Surya Hendry is a writer from Everett, WA. She currently reads for GASHER and Uncanny Magazine. You can find her work in The Leland Quarterly and The Foundationalist, and reach her at @suryahendryy on Twitter. 

photo by Vatsal Patel (via unsplash)

The Doll’s House—Elle Symonds

There is one light aglow in the little house. It flickers like a spotlight above the table, the resin food glistening beneath it. A glazed roast chicken. A basket of bread. Jam that never goes down. I watch you as you sit there, staring at the feast. Sometimes you stare at the newspaper, too, but you never pick it up. Your hands don’t work that way.

You have one of those painted faces. Beautiful, with a small nose and rounded cheeks, dashed with rouge. Curls frame your face; they are auburn and look like fire when the sun shines in through the tall window. Once, those curls were tidy, but that was a while ago, when you were boxed and new, when your clothes were free of stains and the dust hadn’t gathered beneath your eyes. 

You are young, but not too young. When you first arrived I wasn’t sure about you. Were you the lady of the house? You didn’t look as regal, but that was fine; sometimes we could dress you up, in a different frock. Sometimes satin, sometimes something flouncy with pleats, that would move as you twirled around in that little kitchen. I knew you weren’t staff – certainly not – you didn’t have the uniform.

You had a companion once. The man of the house. With his little oversized suit and mop of curly dark hair. He’d sit at the same table in the little kitchen, with his newspaper and coffee that he never finished. He’d read the paper but never turn the page, and the both of you would sit, all silent and unmoving. 

But he took a tumble. Down the slippery, wooden stairs, his porcelain body all smashed up. He was no good after that. That’s the trouble; you’re too fragile.

Now you wear that same expression each day, until you’re moved to another room in your big, open house. And I watch. I listen. 

I watch as they arrive with food left untouched, food you say tastes like wax because everything does to you now. I watch as they bring flowers, more and more, until they take up the kitchen and suffocate you with forced colour, forced apology, and I see your painted face, how it smiles when you see those people, how it vanishes once they’re gone and you’re back at the table, and the dust, the grey dust that surrounds your eyes – you wipe it away on your sleeve and sit there, sit there until the light flickers again.

You don’t move. You don’t eat. You don’t sleep. You don’t see me, or hear my silent shouts across the room. I’m here, I’m here. 

Because everyone knows dolls don’t speak. They can only watch.

When the last light goes out in the little house, I wait. Until tomorrow, when we will sit together again, silent and unmoving.

Elle is a novelist and flash fiction writer from Bristol, UK. Her words have appeared at Retreat West, The Drabble, 5 Minute Lit and more. She’s fond of the seaside, ghost stories and filling her house with too many books. You can find her on Twitter: @seventhelle

photo by edgeeffectmedia.com (via unsplash)

The Last Birthday—Ryan J.M. Tan

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

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

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

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

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

A burning phoenix crucified. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

photo by v2osk (via unsplash)

The Croak—Ellen Forkin

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

It was not always so.

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

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

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

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

photo by Mark Timberlake (via unsplash)