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)

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)

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)

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)

Homegrown—Sophia Adamowicz

content warning: mild gore, discussion of depression and intrusive thoughts

1

Dirt sprays in Hale’s face as he yanks up the root. He spits earth, staggers back. Then, panting, he holds up the remnants of what once thrived in the vegetable plot. His eyes roam over the bulbous head, the curved spine, the diminutive limbs tucked into the body, and he almost drops the discovery. 

“Good God!”

But a closer look reveals that it isn’t anything human. The root has simply assumed a foetal shape. He indulges the fantasy that it’s waiting to come alive and imagines that, if he slapped the place where the buttocks should be, the thing would scream itself pink. Like a… what is it? The plant that screams in mythology? Chloe would know. She’s at the compost heap, her back turned to him. He’s about to call out to her, “Hey, Chlo, look at who I’ve found!” and dangle the root baby in the air. But then he pictures her expression of sadness and throws it onto the pile of weeds behind him.

What else is lurking in the soil? Last week, he emailed the previous owners—appropriately named the ‘Hardacres’—to ask what they’d planted in the four huge beds in the back garden. We lost track over the years, Mr Hardacre replied. There’s all sorts in there. Already, it looks like Chloe’s found something else of interest in the soil from the compost heap. She tips a whole bucket of the stuff upside down and starts picking through it, her russet plait falling over one shoulder and dangling into the dirt.

“What is it?” calls Hale.

“Glass. Loads of it.” She flings a shard to one side without looking where it lands.

“Ooh, careful!”

The universe has a dark sense of humour and excellent comic timing. At that very moment, Chloe lays her hand on the ground and retracts it with a shriek. 

“You okay?”

“Cut myself,” she says, her cat-green eyes darting, her lips pulled back in a grimace.

Hale oos and ouches his way over the lank bodies of weeds. “Let’s have a look.” 

“It’s all right. I’m fine.”

“Okay, okay. Give me your hand.”

One of the discarded pieces of glass has sliced into the fleshy pad of her palm. If this were a romantic film, he’d bandage it with a convenient neckerchief or lick it. They’re always doing things like that in films—silly, overblown things you wouldn’t do in real life. Does she expect him to lick it?

“Come on, let’s run it under a tap,” he concludes, and they walk across the barren garden, blood soaking into the ground like an offering.

Once he’s cleaned and bandaged Chloe’s wound, Hale goes back outside. The garden is bathed in cool, blue twilight. He uses the torch on his phone to catch glints of glass in the composting soil, then wraps up the offending shards in sheets of old newspaper and drops the bundles into a plastic bag. Having cleansed the earth, he shovels it back into the bucket. 

Time to sow the seeds.

As he slides open the greenhouse door, he notices there’s a pane missing. That’ll be where all the glass came from. Scenes of conflict flash through his mind: in one, a man in wellington boots grapples with a balaclava-clad burglar; in another, a petite blonde lobs a pot at her cheating husband. Hale laughs to himself. The Hardacres didn’t seem like the types to lead such dramatic lives.

Inside, his boots thump softly on the wooden planks that stretch across the mess of wood chippings and trailed-in dirt. The greenhouse is in need of some serious TLC. Even the spiders abandoned it long ago, the only traces of them being desolate strands of web that wave feebly in the wind. Moss blooms through the roof like a virulent strain of mould. There and then, Hale decides that the next project will be restoring the greenhouse to its former glory. Thrilled by how quickly he’s taken to his new identity as a ‘green-fingered’ type, he begins to apportion the composting soil into plastic pots. 

Chloe said she didn’t want to help. She said she’d ruin things. Worry nips and pinches him—Chloe’s bouts of depression always begin with the idea that she’s like a bomb about to explode and obliterate all that’s good. Hopefully, the new house will provide a distraction from those destructive thoughts.

Hale tears open the first packet and pours out its contents. Beige runner bean seeds clatter onto the shelf. He rubs one against his bottom lip, enjoying the sensation of its smooth outer coat, and places it experimentally between his front teeth. It’s like biting a stone. Hard to think that the tender stirrings of new life could come from something like that.

Into the pots, he slips the seeds that will grow into beans, butternut squashes, pumpkins and White Queen tomatoes, pats the surface of the soil tenderly, then labels each one. And, although he knows it’s silly, he bends over with an ironic smile and whispers, “Grow, my pretties.”

2

The utility room has become a nursery, the sideboards and windowsills teeming with pots. Amidst the splinters of twigs and clumps of soil, straggly shoots have started to grow. Each one is topped with a pair of oval leaves, like arms spread out in greeting. Chloe runs her index finger over the labels with a frown.

“Why do the butternut shoots look exactly the same as the beans?”

“I’m not entirely sure,” Hale mumbles, his mouth full of salted caramel Easter egg. He examines the pots with an eye recently trained on gardening websites and forums, and shakes his head. “They might just be weeds. I was reading about this last night. We should’ve used special potting soil. That compost has all sorts of crap in it.”

He snaps off a piece of chocolate shell and lifts it to Chloe’s lips. She swerves away.

“It’s because of me,” she says in a little voice.

“What do you mean?” He wonders if she’s been watering them as well. The website said that over-watering could be fatal at this stage, though it wasn’t as if the seeds had much of a chance in the first place. Not with that inferior compost. 

Tears shimmer in Chloe’s eyes. “I mean, it’s me. I’m cursed.”

Hale takes a deep breath. It’s her mystical way of thinking again. She’s always taking innocuous things that bear no relation to each other and stitching them together into a monstrous whole.

“You’re not cursed,” he says, gathering her in his arms. She has a sour, unwashed smell, even though her hair is still wet from the shower. “The soil’s just bad.”

“It’s because I touched it! I bled onto it. Everything I touch dies.”

“That’s not true. Am I dead?”

She laughs—a small victory. “No, I mean, I can’t make anything. I’m sterile.”

Oh, it’s this again.

“Look, you’re not to blame. It’s notoriously difficult to grow from seed. This was an experiment. If nothing’s grown by next week, we’ll buy some seedlings or, at the very least, some proper potting soil. Then we’ll try again. We’ve still got plenty of time before the planting season ends.”

He knows he’s not addressing what she really means. But they’ve had that conversation many times and always arrived at the same conclusion: even if they could have kids, they’d probably still choose a child-free lifestyle. It’s the idea of being infertile that upsets her, not the reality. No one wants to be told they can’t do something. And now every failure comes back to that one thing, the root that’s too difficult to pull up.

“Have you spoken to the GP?” he says.

“About…?”

“About how you’re feeling,” he adds quickly.

She nods. “Oh, yeah. He told me to commune with nature.”

“What?”

Chloe pulls away from him, wiping tears from her cheeks, and leans over the pots on the windowsill. “You know, marry a tree. Conjure the spirit of Gaia.” She shrugs. “I guess he just meant go for walks and appreciate the beauty of the world. But I can’t see it, Hale. Everything looks washed out. And it’s hard to fit new things into my schedule.”

The shape of Chloe’s days is a mystery. Her freelance teaching only takes up three or four hours, and even with preparation and marking added in, that still leaves a large chunk of time unoccupied by work. What does she do with herself? Maybe she’s bored. Maybe that’s the problem.

“You should try this communing thing. It might actually be helpful.”

“I am trying,” she says. Then more quietly, “I will try.”

He first sees it a few days later, in the hour of solitude he enjoys before catching the early morning train to King’s Cross. Something pale gleams through the gaps in the clotted soil. Very carefully, he rootles around with the tip of a pencil until he can see it clearly. It’s a shoot, a proper shoot, in one of the pots labelled ‘Bean’. He was right about those spindly stalks—they’re nothing but cuckoos. He plucks them out with distaste. This’ll cheer Chloe right up. She’ll see that mystical thinking about sterility is nonsense. But feeling the pull of such thinking himself, he dips his head closer to the new life and, once again, whispers. “Grow strong and healthy. Make her better.”

And the astounding thing? They listen. 

They grow quickly. 

Chloe takes a cursory interest in them when the shoots first start to appear. 

“Very good,” she says. “They look like leviathans.” 

“Hmm?”

“Sea monsters, breaking the surface of a deep, dark ocean.”

He looks at them again and can see what she means. It’s both a blessing and a curse, the way Chloe’s mind works. In this instance, her thoughts delight him.

“When will they be ready to plant outside?” she asks.

“Not for a little while. They need to do some more growing in the warmth before they can face the harsh reality of the garden.” Hale brushes aside his mop of hair and points at the pot furthest away from them. “That big one there is getting the most sunlight. I’ll rotate the others so they can all have a go at enjoying the best spot.”

Chloe smiles at him—it’s the first time she’s smiled properly for days—and snuggles into his chest. The sour smell has gone. He hugs her tightly.

“Aren’t you my little seedling?” he says playfully.

Chloe loops her hands around his neck and curves her back inwards. “I am. And you’re my sunshine.”

“Or the crappy compost.”

 “No.” She stands on tiptoe to kiss him. “Definitely sunshine.”

3

Hale admires the fruit of his labour on his morning rounds with the spritzer. Most impressive are the beans, with their coral-kissed stems and leaves like the skins of strange amphibians. The pumpkin shoots are lovely, too—furry, like moths’ bodies. Every day, he urges them to grow. Every day, they oblige, springing up with new surprises when he’s not looking. 

Then one sleepless night, only a short time before he has to get ready for work, he sees something among the leaves of the tallest beanstalk. It must have grown over the past few hours—there was nothing like it on the plant when he checked earlier. It’s spherical, about the size of a cherry tomato and perfectly white.

He planted White Queens, but they’re growing in different pots. Is it a case of cross-contamination? Did one of the tiny tomato seeds cling to his nail like a stowaway and make its home in a strange bed? 

He strokes it with his little finger. It’s all those words children use to describe unpleasant textures: squidgy, gooey, yucky. Spongey. Instinctively, he draws his hand away with an eww. Yet his curiosity is sparked. Some dormant biologist’s instinct now stirring in his gut, he rotates the pot one hundred and eighty degrees and leans in to examine what’s growing.

It stares at him.

Hale staggers back, his big, clumsy limbs knocking against the cupboard in the utility room and disturbing reels of tape, overstuffed toolboxes and spare lightbulbs. 

It’s an eye—cat-green, just like Chloe’s.

Thinking he must be caught in the middle of a vivid dream, he stumbles towards the kitchen sink and splashes his face with cold water. Snap out of it! He dabs his dripping stubble on a hand towel and works up the nerve to go back into the utility room. Like Chloe when she’s seen a spider, he walks on tiptoe, his heart shaking all six foot two of him. It’s still there, and it’s real. The eye is real.

He’s never felt more awake. The vibrancy has been turned up on all the colours in the house, the volume on all the sounds, so now the tick of the kitchen clock is inside him like his own pulse, and the light from his phone cuts holes in the fabric of the darkness when he opens the back door. 

He’s never felt more asleep. His head floats above his shoulders as he carries the plant out to the greenhouse and places it in the far corner. He covers it up with stacks of spare pots before bending over, hands on knees, and breathing through rounded lips. Options race through his mind. He could leave it outside and hope it withers away. But what if it doesn’t? What if Chloe sees it? He could dispose of it somehow. Chop it up into bits. Bury it. But he can’t do that—not to something that reminds him, however bizarrely, of Chloe. 

He could keep it. 

It’s that old biologist’s instinct again. Clearly, he tells himself, he’s dealing with a rare plant. What he interpreted as an eye may be nothing more sinister than a variety of fruit unknown to him, maybe even unknown to the world at large. Maybe it’s exactly the same species that produced the root baby He kicks himself for throwing that little curiosity in the green recycling bin. If only he had it now, he could compare the physical features. He won’t make the same mistake again. This new plant must be nurtured. It must be studied. 

His huge hands shaking, he unstacks the pots until the eye is exposed once more. Then he picks up a watering can.

In the garage, the last of cardboard boxes from the move await their turn to be deconstructed. Chloe only has a blunt pair of scissors to work with, so it’s taking her a while, but Hale is tearing through his. There’s a pile of flattened boxes beside him and one belly up in his lap. He takes the box cutter and slips it into the brown tape. It glides down the seam.

“Hale?”

The flaps pop up. He squashes the sides of the box together.

“Hale, are you listening?”

 “Hmm?”

It gives in, buckles under the pressure of his hands. He lays it to rest with the others and nods with satisfaction before replying to Chloe. “Sorry. Go on.”

“Can you hide that box cutter somewhere when we’re done? Somewhere I can’t see it or reach it.”

 “Why?”

She sucks her bottom lip and looks down. “I just… I get these stupid thoughts.”

Hale’s stomach twists into a knot. “What thoughts?”

“I know they’re ridiculous. I’d never act on them, but… you know… I imagine what it would be like to stab myself in the windpipe, or in the stomach.”

“Painful, I expect,” he says, trying to keep his voice light. He read somewhere that the more attention you give to intrusive thoughts, the more real they become. It’s better to act as if they’re not even noteworthy. Still, he has to at least acknowledge her concerns. “Don’t worry. I’ll store it somewhere up high, along with my stash of porno mags.”

Was that the right thing to say? Surely, she doesn’t think he actually has porno mags. That would be so old-school. He’s about to make an excuse for the joke, but she cracks a smile.

“Thanks.”

Feeling oddly self-conscious with the box cutter in his hand, like he’s been caught in the middle of an armed robbery, he retracts the blade and places the tool behind his back. 

“Chlo, is everything all right?”

She goes back to staring at the broken sheet of cardboard. Everything had been all right an hour ago. They’d been playing a game in town, the aim of which was to see who could find the most hideous item on display in a shop window. Chloe won after she pointed out a glittery rainbow-striped ukulele and commented, “It looks like something a hipster unicorn shat out.” 

People stared at them in the street as they laughed. Then, as soon as they got home, her shoulders rounded, her speech became deeper, slower, and her face set itself into a blank, distracted expression. 

“The thing is,” Hale says, “you’ve not been yourself lately.”

“I know. I’m feeling down. It’s as if I can’t see things properly anymore. Like there’s a grey filter over everything.”

He crosses the floor and sits beside her. “What can I do to make you feel better?” 

“I don’t know. I don’t even know why I’m feeling this way, really.”

“Is it the stress of moving?”

“Sort of. More like the stress of what comes after moving.”

“What do you mean?”

She takes a deep breath and closes her eyes. “I thought this would be it. I thought that reaching this pinnacle would make me happy. But now I’m here, at the top, it’s just given me a better view of the hundreds and hundreds of even higher pinnacles in the distance.”

“Like what?” Hale snaps, fighting down the annoyance mounting inside him. “What else could you want?”

Even as he says it, he knows it’s a mistake. Chloe turns pale. “I just want to be okay. Is that too much to ask?”

He clutches her hands and runs his thumb along her left ring finger. The gold band has been there almost a year, but still, he hasn’t got over the novelty, the enormity of it. “Look, don’t worry about anything. We’ve nearly got everything in order. We just need a big TV and some more furniture and, when we’ve got the garden under control, we can sit outside in the summer and enjoy having all this space to ourselves, right?”

Something changes in her. Whether it’s the prospect of summer or getting a job done, he doesn’t know, but blood seems to rush back into her lips. “Right,” she says. “Yeah, that’ll be good.”

Hale drapes his arm around her shoulders and pecks her cheek, wishing he hadn’t mentioned the garden. 

4

Chloe’s eyes—a pair—regard Hale from under their green umbrellas of foliage. The second one sprouted down-stem a few days after the first. Hale tries not to think of them as part of the ‘face’ of the plant, because then they look monstrously skewed, as if they’re staring out from some melted head. When viewed as things in themselves, they’re beautiful. The whites are fat and glossy, and the taut, chartreuse fibres in their centres sparkle as if they’re covered by a sheen of morning dew. Yes, they’re beautiful. He’s in love with them. They’re the eyes that gazed at him when he selected Pink Floyd’s ‘Welcome to the Machine’ from the jukebox at the students’ union. Chloe budded off from her gaggle of artsy friends and walked across the room—straight through the middle of it, no skirting around the edges—and stood next to him. She was only as high as his shoulders, and he felt more conscious than ever before of his bear-like body.

“Good choice,” she said with a smile. “No one here plays nearly enough dad rock.”

He laughed. “Dad rock is the best.”

“Exactly! That’s what me and my dad have been saying our whole lives.”

And they hogged the jukebox for a couple of hours, until people started complaining about the music and cleared out of the bar, leaving only the two of them.

At one time, that was enough.

Hale takes the box cutter in his hand, its tip poking obscenely out of the black and yellow casing, and pushes the slider until more of the blade is exposed. He’s in that same state as before—both hyper alert and bedded deep in a nightmare—and on the verge of giving in to the intrusive thought that has been nagging him for the past few days: dissect the fruit. It’s the only way he can understand what’s going on.

Chloe’s eyes watch him, wide with terror, as he brings the blade towards them. None of this is really happening, he thinks. Yet his body seems to know that it is really happening, because he’s quaking as badly as he did when he crashed his first car, and now the box cutter feels like it’s about to slide out of his hand. If it hits the ground, reality will come rushing in like a cold wind. He can’t let that happen. Something can’t let that happen.

Tightening his grip until his knuckles turn pale yellow, he takes the last few steps towards the plant and places his free hand around the white of the eye at the top. It resists him, pushing back against his fingers like a new rubber ball. Hale focuses on the coolness of the air to quell his rising nausea and pulls the eyeball down so that he can see what’s connecting it to the stem.

Covering most of the area at the back of the eye is a dark green sepal—similar to that found at the top of a tomato, only much bigger—with a network of fine blood vessels spidering out from beneath it. Hale stops breathing. Somehow, he hadn’t expected blood. 

A peduncle runs from sepal to stalk like an optic nerve. There can’t be an optic nerve. The thing doesn’t have a brain, does it?

Compelled to know more, sickened by his compulsion, he nicks the surface of the peduncle. 

The leaves contract with a shudder. 

A thin line of red oozes from the slit. He dabs it with his little finger and lifts the fluid to his lips. The coppery tang is unmistakable. 

“Hale?”

It’s Chloe, standing at the door of the greenhouse in his hoodie and her flowery pyjama trousers. Her gaze lingers for a moment on the red smudge across his lower lip. Then she looks behind him—at the plant.

“Are you going to harvest them?”

Hale’s whole face is numb. He can’t form words. He nods.

“Do you think they’re ready?”

Questions begin to flap about in his mouth. “How…? Have you…?”

“I’ve been keeping track of it,” she says, stepping inside. Even though it’s warmer in the greenhouse than out in the garden, she wraps her arms around herself. “Over the past few days, I’ve been checking on them.”

They both stare at the plant. Its leaves have unfurled themselves, as if it’s no longer afraid in Chloe’s presence. A drop of blood trickles down the stem.

“I thought it was giving me a child at first,” she says with a shrivelled laugh. “Like something from the faerie folk. But when I saw the colour of the eyes, I got it.”

“Got what?” asks Hale.

“It’s making new parts for me.”

He shakes his head, still not understanding. “But how could it do that? I mean, why?”

“Something must have seen,” she replies, caressing the leaves. “Something must have listened.”

“Listened to what?”

“I started talking to them. The doctor told me to commune with nature, so that’s what I tried to do. I whispered my thoughts to them, and it was amazing—for an hour or two afterwards, I actually felt okay. And now, look!” She props up the drooping eyeball with her little finger. “They’re helping me heal.”

“What are you talking about? How does this help you?”

“Isn’t it obvious?”

“N… not really, no.”

She tugs. The peduncle breaks in two, and the eyeball comes away in her hand, spewing globs of blood. Hale scrambles into the corner furthest away from her, his heart pounding like a blacksmith’s hammer.

“Christ, Chloe! What the fuck?”

She shushes him and cradles the eye in the palm of her hand. 

“What are you going to do with it?”

“Shh! I’m going to put it in my head,” she whispers, her voice trembling.

“How the hell do you expect to do that?”

Her old eyes flick to the box cutter lying on the floor. “There are ways.”

Before she can reach down, Hale makes a dive for the tool and holds it high above his head. She drops the eyeball on the shelf and reaches up, pawing at Hale’s chest. “Give it to me! I need it!”

“No, no, no, no. No way. This is crazy. I’m not letting you do—”

“It’s not up to you!”

“You’re not in your right mind.”

“You think I don’t know that? I’m trying to fix it.”

Hale slides the box cutter through a gap in the greenhouse roof and holds Chloe, now trying to clamber onto the shelves, by the shoulders. She attempts to wrestle out of his grip, twisting and flailing.

“Let me go!”

“No, Chloe, no, calm—”

“Don’t you dare tell me to calm down! I’m being given a chance, and you’re taking it from me. It’s not fair. I want to be better. Why are you stopping me?”

“Because you don’t need to be better!” he yells. “I love you how you are.”

Chloe stops struggling. A sob catches in her throat. He pulls her closer to his shaking body, and she wilts against him. For a few seconds, everything is still apart from the long-abandoned cobweb that billows gently above their heads.

“I know you do,” says Chloe. She gives him a squeeze, then steps away. “But I don’t love me. I’m sick of dreading every single day. I’m sick of dragging my existence out when everything, everything, seems so hard.”

“But you were fine the other day!”

“No, Hale. I’m not fine. Something here understands. Something’s seen it and is trying to make me well. You don’t need to be scared. It’s all going to work out for the best. I just know it.”

And while he’s still trying to process what she said, Chloe grabs the eyeball from the side and, without hesitation, stuffs it into her mouth. 

For a second, neither of them move.

Then Chloe starts to chew.

Hale covers his face, turns from her. He crouches on the ground, and even above the sounds of his own violent retching, he can hear it all: Chloe whimpering as her jaw works up and down, up and down, the squeak of the sclera against her teeth, the crunching and grinding of vessels, and, after a minute or so, a bubblegum-like pop.

5

“Top-up?”

Chloe lifts the bottle of chardonnay and gives it a little shake from side to side.

“Yeah, why not?” says Hale, holding out his glass. The wine rushes out, glugging like a natural spring. They’ve got nothing to do today except enjoy the sun in twenty-seven degree heat, getting giggly and sleepy on the patio to the boom of Pink Floyd. The aroma of charred meat wafts through the air.

“We should have a barbecue later,” he says.

Chloe quickly swallows a mouthful of wine. “Mmm. Or we could make pizza.”

“Yeah, either would be good.”

“Pizza’s quicker. I’m getting hungry.”

“But barbecues are more summery,” he points out.

“That’s true. Is there some law in England—like, when it gets above twenty, you’ve got to have a barbecue?”

“Yeah, it’s one of those weird old decrees like, ‘It’s illegal to tickle a salmon after sunset.’”

“Oh, I’d have thought most salmon tickling would take place after sunset, if you know what I mean.” Chloe grins.

“We’re a nation of wanton criminals. Anyway, I’ve never heard it called salmon tickling.”

“You innocent child, Hale.”

He breathes deeply and sits back in the deckchair. Everything is luxuriously green apart from the blushing camellias on his right and the little white flowers of the strawberries in the bed at the front left. Their kitchen garden is looking magnificent. The rhubarb crowns have turned into thrones. He’ll get some advice online about how to cut the stalks and, once he’s harvested the lot, he’ll turn his mind to making pies and crumbles, maybe even jams for Christmas presents.

It’s all coming together. There are off days, of course, but that’s normal. The big difference is that the grey filter Chloe spoke about seems to have fallen away now. She was right about everything. The garden knows how to take care of her. Every day, he finds new evidence of it.

“Want to check on our plants?” he asks.

“Sure.”

Hand in hand, they amble towards the patch the furthest away from the house, where the runner beans twist around tipi-like structures, and White Queens are swelling on the vine. In the bed opposite, a surprise crop has appeared: fingers of asparagus break through the ground like it’s the Second Coming. And in the fig tree right at the very back, garlanded with waxy leaves and fruit that’s almost splitting its own flesh, a human heart ripens to a sweet, luscious red.

Sophia is a tutor and writer, represented by Joanna Swainson of Hardman & Swainson literary agency. Her short stories and articles have appeared in Cunning Folk magazine and on the Horrified website. She lives in Suffolk with her partner and two cats, Prufrock and Milquetoast.

photo by Jackson Pokhrel (via pexels)

Nesting—Lyndsey Croal

Her jaw aches, like claws are pulling at her teeth, as if searching for parts, removing them one by one until there’s nothing left but a gaping maw, and there are stones in her throat so that she can’t breathe, then something tickles her cheek like a feather or a fine paint brush, and everything is dark, immobilised, like she’s no longer in control of her own body, time to wake up, time to wake up, but it’s not working and she wants to scream but all that comes out is a retch that echoes into the never ending darkness.

The nest appeared on the first morning of my retreat. I didn’t notice it initially, nestled in a nook in the corner as if hiding a tiny mouse hole. It was made, as nests usually are, with broken twigs, brittle and dry, woven into a labyrinthine basin. No eggs were inside, nor feathers or hint of usual habitation. Instead, there were tiny pebbles, white and smooth and shiny. I picked them up one by one and counted them. Thirty-two in total. 

Odd. 

I checked the window to make sure there were no gaps. Like many old buildings, the panes were at an angle, so that the wood creaked, and the hinges rattled. But the only spaces between were tiny air pockets that were just big enough to let a spider through. 

The sun was still low in the sky and the clouds were painted a rusty orange. The view from the window was even more idyllic than it had been the night before – a craggy cliff overlooking an endless ocean, exactly the kind of escape I’d wanted to finish the last piece of my collection. 

I looked down at the nest again. It’s an old house, I thought. It must have been there the night before, and I hadn’t noticed because it was dark when I’d arrived. I scooped it up carefully, cradled it in my hands and felt the surface of the pebbles again. A stabbing pain shot to my jaw and I clenched it. I really needed to go to the dentist about that wisdom tooth when I got home.

I took the nest outside and left it on the picnic bench, then set myself up in the living room. Placing a sheet on the floor, I angled my easel in the middle, facing the window so that I could see the trees behind the cottage move back and forth in their secret whisper outside. No one would disturb me here. I propped the blank canvas up and tried to summon a creative image in my mind. Shapes began to form, so I picked up the palette – selecting black, white, blue, and emerald-green – and started painting wherever the brush took me. 

By the end of the day, I’d barely finished the background, but the outline of something was starting to take form – splashes of colours danced amidst blurry edges.

Later, as I made dinner, I glanced out to the garden and saw the nest sitting there in the soft light of the moon. Something about it was making me curious, like an itch I needed to scratch. So, I took it back inside and washed the pebbles in the sink until they were shiny and polished. Back at my easel, I stared at the dashes of colour in front of me. I knew there had been something missing – the pebbles were the perfect addition, so I stuck them on carefully with glue and paint. A beak had formed. 

She’s surrounded by bright light and she can’t make a sound for it’s as if her mouth has been sewn shut, and it’s still and quiet here, lying on her back facing the light, then in the brightness a flash of black and white plumage breaks through and she can just make out a bird – a magpie – soaring towards her, and it lands, starts to dance on her abdomen, searching, as if trying to find a worm, though it’s alone, solitary, so she tries to salute it, but her arms are stuck, the sorrow will come, and now it’s jumping on her stomach, the talons digging into flesh, she screams, it hurts so much, digging and digging, and then from its beak she sees what looks like a worm, covered in red and white, and the magpie looks at her with a tilted head, a blink of its green-grey eyes, and it jumps away, flying into brightness.

It appeared again the next morning. This time it lay on the windowsill as I looked out into the bright breaking haar across the sea. I couldn’t be sure if it was the same nest, but it was in the same intricate shape. I peered inside expecting pebbles again, but instead a piece of rope, curved and twisted, was curled up in the centre. It was covered in red dirt and stringy fibres as if had only recently been dug up from the earth. What sort of creature collects pieces of rope? I opened the window and lifted it inside.

The rope was rough in my hands, fibres bristling against my skin. It felt oddly familiar, as if it were a missing piece to some puzzle I didn’t understand. My stomach twisted like a flutter of wings and grumbled angrily at me. I took the rope with me as I went downstairs, soaking it in the sink so that the water turned red. After I’d finished my breakfast, the rope had bulged out in size, so I left it to dry on the aga while I worked.

As the day wore on, the painting wove with colour. My hand seemed to move of its own free will, colour cresting and twisting like crashing waves. Slowly a body started to appear, then a beady eye, and an ivory stomach. But I just couldn’t get the feet right. 

I sat back and stared at the painting until it grew dark outside. I looked at the pebbles that formed the beak and had an idea. The rope was dry, so I started to pluck at the threads, pulling bits off and positioning them beneath the stomach, until talons appeared, sharp and deadly. In the dim light of the room, they looked almost like they were moving, as if they could reach from the canvas at any moment. Satisfied, I covered the paint palette in film. I’d leave the wings for the next morning.

She’s lying on her front while a creature pecks at her back, but she can’t see what it’s doing, it just pulls and digs, a euphoric pain ebbs into her body, and the skin and muscle peels away until bone is reached, and she feels the tug then, like she’s being ripped apart and suddenly the pain is too much, but she can’t move her arms to bat the bird away, it simply digs relentlessly until it extracts the piece it needs, and she feels a deep ache in her lungs as if the cage protecting them has been broken, and the darkness comes swift and unyielding.

On the third morning, I found the window open, even though I was sure I had shut it the night before. I shivered, feeling my way around the room, searching for any hint of intrusion. But there was, of course, none. Maybe the next retreat should be somewhere less remote, though I did enjoy the freedom this place gave me – it allowed me to be absorbed by my painting, to really give myself to the art. The end result was always better that way. 

It was a bright day for the start of autumn, and light spilled in through the sash windows of the kitchen when I ventured downstairs. But something caught my eye as I was filling the kettle. Sitting on the armchair, resting on the soft cushion was a nest. It was a little bigger than before, to accommodate the item within. A piece of driftwood, white and hollow and curved, lay safely within its walls. 

As I leant down to inspect it closer, a pain shot into my ribs and I had to steady myself on the armrest. The moment passed quickly – I blamed the mattress for being too soft. I picked up the driftwood carefully. It was light and felt smooth like porcelain. I set it down on the table and realised its shape was odd, thin at one end and thick at the bottom with little ridges jutting out – almost like a broken wing without its feathers. 

My mind wandered to my incomplete painting, knowing this was the perfect part. Ignoring the now-whistling kettle, I took the driftwood and presented it to my canvas. It slotted in perfectly beneath the curved black plumage, the flash of emerald-green tail, the rope feet and the pebbled beak. After I had glued it on, I drew the final line, connecting the beak to the tail.

And I felt a deep ache in my muscles. My head spun as the room moved. I tried to steady my breathing, but it was no use – I was already falling. 

The world is blurry again as she feels like her body is being pulled apart, piece by piece, limb by limb and reconstructed into a strange whole, and she can’t breathe as the morphing continues, all she wants is for it to stop, she can’t open her eyes and there’s just a constant stabbing pain of stretching and pulling and compressing and she’s shrinking, her body itches with strange barbs bristling out of her, until all she can do is curl into a ball and let the night take her.

I’m awake, though something feels off. Moonlight drifts through the panes and there’s a whistle of air in the room. But the space is too big for me and everything looks out of perspective. I blink and look up at the bed. A figure is lying there, sleeping. My mind is foggy, like I’m still in a dream.

I glance at my feet and clawed talons stretch out. Underneath them is a nest that looks oddly familiar, broken twigs knotted together into a labyrinthine structure. But it’s empty, and a nest shouldn’t be empty. 

I’m drawn towards the sleeping figure, a woman with gleaming hair. There’s a paint set by her bed, clean, shiny, and untouched. A clock ticks slowly, second by second. Then it stills and all I can hear is the sound of her breathing. Her mouth is open, a gaping maw with walls of glittering moonlit silver – thirty-two pebbles in a row. Just the parts I need. I lean in and pluck the pebbles out, one by one, placing them carefully in the nest. After, I gaze upon the creation, feeling a warmth in my beak. 

I push the nest into the corner by the window and hop up to the sill. A chill wind ruffles my feathers. But it will be sunrise soon. I’ll come back tomorrow, and the next day, to work on my creations, nesting, until my collection is done.

previously published in Dark Moon Digest #44 (July 2021)

Lyndsey is an Edinburgh-based writer of speculative and strange fiction. She is a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Awardee, and her work has been published in several anthologies and magazines, including Mslexia’s Best Women’s Short Fiction 2021. Her debut audio drama was produced by Alternative Stories & Fake Realities, and was recently shortlisted for a 2022 British Fantasy Award. She was also the Editor for “Ghostlore: An Audio Fiction Anthology”, with the same podcast. Find her on Twitter as @writerlynds or via www.lyndseycroal.co.uk

photo by MabelAmber (via pixabay)

Sigmund’s Stew—William Nuth

I am the last to arrive because I have brought the bread. They crowd around the windows and watch me come from the wood. Today is Sigmund’s Day and our meeting marks the year. And although today is a day of joy, a new kind of sadness has begun in me.

This year I am the baker because I am no longer a girl. I don’t know what I did to make this change, or what it will reveal, although I’m hopeful that this black mood is not a defining part.

Grandad would go out on new year’s night and make sure he was the first through the door. The coal he left on the step was in the hope of a warmer spring. This is why the baker arrives last, because some things have always been. They are like the fire under our pot, and the decision it makes every year. There is no change in them like there is in us.

My bread is still warm, wrapped up tight in a kitchen cloth. I fear it may sweat and break apart and hold no stew in its crust. I fear I will trip and fall on the path as I carry it to the door. I fear I will let down all those loving eyes. Perhaps this is a part of growing old. 

It’s a relief when Mother Mari opens the door and the faces leave the windows. She takes the bread with her good arm and holds the door with what’s left of the other. 

‘New bread for what’s to come.’ She says stopping the door with her foot and unwrapping the cloth. ‘Old stew for what’s gone.’ 

Delwyn stands on the stairs with his violin. I believe he is better with his one hand than anyone could be with two. Mother Mari closes the door and he begins the first song. The children hold hands and make circles with their arms. They spin and laugh and pull in their mothers and fathers. One by one the parents are cut away from the crowd until it is only the old and alone left to watch. 

I sit with Enid, a quiet lady who is both old and alone. She holds my hand and we watch the dance together. She tells me about an old day.

‘The pot was different then. They changed it on our first Sigmund’s Day, can you imagine? David was there, holding the new one steady as they poured in the stew. He left the next day.’

‘Why would he leave?’ I ask.

‘He didn’t understand.’

She looks to the fire and the steaming pot, its bottom as black as coal, and she begins to cry. She cries because today she is less alone, because tomorrow will come and today will go. 

I look at her shoulders, her cheeks and closed eyes. I rub her misshapen hand. I try to imagine her young. They say she loved to dance, but now she cannot. Her good leg taps, steady and gentle, the other twitches as it tries to move what is not there. I wonder if she could tell me what it means to be grown, to no longer be a child. I wonder if wisdom has come with her years, and if her sadness and mine are the same.

The dancing brings a closeness into the room and the windows fog. Mother Mari prepares the table. Her granddaughter carries bowls and steadies the loaf as Mari saws us each a slice. It is a good bread.

She has set the table so that the fire and pot sit at the head. We are its body, its dancing legs and arms. We are its movement in the world, and it is our memory. It bubbles away under an iron lid, an oily brown mouth reciting the countless days it’s seen. 

‘On the year you were born they scraped the bottom of the pot,’ says Enid. ‘They brought up a burnt black lump and buried it in the woods. I believe it was a sign.’   

Mother Mari lifts the lid and spoons in salt. I wonder at what new secrets have grown on the bottom since I was born.

More lights are lit, and the warmth of our bodies pulls us closer. Those that can will dance the night through, but first we must sit and eat. I help Enid cross the room and the dancers part.

Now that I am a woman I sit at the long table and am part of the night proper. I choose to sit with Enid this first time. Behind Mother Mari the children sit at their table and wait. Maybe this is where the sadness has sprouted from; I am no longer a child at the small table, I am a woman at the large. It must mean something more than I know, more than the word itself. I imagine part of myself gone forever, a small piece of joy lost between the cracks of age.    

Once everyone has sat Mother Mari leads our prayer. I pray that Enid will feel less alone, and that she may receive the stew’s gift to lighten her life.

‘Now where is my stone, my round earth bone?’ says Mother Mari at the end of the prayer. 

The children bang their table and say as one:

‘Look in your pocket, in Sigmund’s wood locket.’

She reaches into the folds of her dress and finds the box. She opens it and tips the pebble into her hand then throws it high over her shoulder to the children.

She takes the lucky child to the pot and lifts the lid. He looks into the depths and drops the stone. 

We sing and pass the bowls around the table as they are filled. They travel through everyone’s hands, like a river springing from Mother Mari’s ladle and ending at our mouths. We pass until the bowls are mixed and only the stew knows who is chosen. I pray again for Enid, and in my sadness, I do what is not allowed and pray for myself. 

It’s shameful to wish it for yourself, it is selfish and wrong. But the weight of my wish feels real and heavy and good. I repeat it to myself as I bring my bowl close.

A thousand Mother Mari’s have added water and vegetables over the years. A thousand Mother Mari’s tending a fire as old as the forest that feeds it. I feel every one of them as I eat. It tastes exactly right.

And then it is there, the weight of my wish balanced in the cup of my spoon. 

This round earth bone.  

Enid kisses me on the cheek and begins to clap. Those that can clap join in, those that cannot bang the table and stamp what feet they have. They look at me with both joy and jealousy. She has brought the bread, they think, and now she has the stone. How could one girl, one woman, be graced with such luck?

A space is cleared amongst the bowls and bread and I pick a leg entire. I pick it so that I can join Enid in her giving, so she may be a little less alone. Mother Mari uncovers my leg and straps my thigh and the many hands hold me. As I am prepared the sadness drifts off like vapour from the pot. I feel Him in me, Sigmund reaching up through the deepest of time. He has heard me. He has seen me, and I can see Him. I feel the warmth of His fire and the tight press of hands. I feel the change from girl to woman as the child in me is cut away and given to our eternal stew.

William Nuth lives on the border of Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire. In his spare time, he can be found writing and talking to his dog. He has previously been published in StructoBandit FictionFirewords and The Bitter Oleander.

photo by Saveurs Secretes (via pexels)

Siren Song—Abigail Wright

I first remember hearing them when I was seven. They’re the reason no one goes swimming in Lake Tamesis. It’s a beautiful lake, with clear, deep blue water that goes green when the sun hits it just right, the foam cresting on the waves that kick up in the wind. The rocks that lead down to the shore have eroded into smooth, pale pebbles, and those who are brave enough to venture that far down do so barefoot. A few summers ago, some kids got drunk on Miller Lite from the local tackle store and dared each other to go out past the warning signs, wading in deep enough to cover the tops of their knees. That was the first drowning in over fifty years. Some say it was the cheap beer, others the kids’ underdeveloped frontal lobes, but I know. You can hear the songs some nights, turning up the radios on screened-in back porches to drown them out. The sirens called them in. 

That summer was marked by me moving in with my grandparents. I’d never met them, and, outside of the fact that I knew my mother had to have come from somewhere, didn’t know they existed. My mother never talked about them, but I didn’t yet know why. The social worker had introduced us in one of what seemed like an endless stream of white-walled rooms smelling of antiseptic I kept finding myself in after my mother died. I tried to tune out the details of the car crash as they went over them again with my grandparents; I could recite them from memory at this point. The roads had been slick and the driver had been drunk and it was all very unfortunate. Apparently, the only saving grace was that I had been too sick to go to the store with her, so she left me at home with a bowl of soup and the number of the friendly older woman next door. It had been her who called the police. 

The first night in their home, my grandmother tucked me in under a hand-knit quilt, flicking the hall light on so I wouldn’t be scared. I lay there, listening to the puttering sounds of her and my grandfather having one last cup of coffee in the kitchen, trying to convince my body it was back in my bedroom at home, when I heard them. It started off as soft humming, and I almost thought it was a train coming down the tracks that lay hidden in the woods. Then it seemed to click, and I could make out the voices, as if they were calling to me. I swung my feet out of bed, creaking on the old hardwood, and my grandmother was at my door in an instant.

“Do you need something, dear?” 

“The voices?” I wasn’t even sure what I was asking. 

“Oh, don’t let it bother you. It’s just the wind coming in through the trees. Go back to bed, now. Would you like a glass of water?”

I think she would have kept them from me if she could, but in a town like that, secrets are impossible. You couldn’t buy a loaf of bread without hearing one woman or another sneer about the sirens stealing her husband, and all the older kids would crowd around the back of the gym to see who could tell the worst horror story. I was told they were evil, that they drowned men who came too close, pulling them under with the lure of their sweet songs. No one knew where they came from, or how long they’d been there, but they were as much a part of the town as any one of us.

My grandmother used to drop me off at the library for story hour when she did her grocery shopping. She had forgotten the trick of keeping a child entertained at the store, and I didn’t do much to help her my first few months there. It was near Halloween, and Miss Dithers, the librarian, was telling us a story about the sirens to frighten us a bit. She told us these were bad creatures, that they looked like beautiful women and tried to convince happy men to come out to sea and abandon their families, but that it was a trap, and they killed them. Miss Dithers’ husband had recently left her. According to her, they were slender with long, wavy hair and full hips. I think the idea that it took something attractive to lure him away was comforting to her. She told us about the absolute power they had, and how they were completely in control of themselves and everything and everyone they wanted. 

I was confused. What was wrong with power? What was so wrong with these creatures having complete control, the ability to do whatever they wanted? My mother had taught me that a woman deserved control of herself, of her own body. That was the reason she had left my father. He had thought he owned her in some way because he’d put a band of gold on her finger. Sometimes my mother would put it on just to show me how it wore her skin green after a while.   I raised my hand from the back of the mat, and I could see the hesitation in Miss Dithers’ eyes as she called on me; I’d learned since moving to her hometown that my mother had left a reputation behind her. She’d never fit herself into the space the people around her felt she should, and so she had left as soon as she was able. I carried her eyes, and, apparently, her temperament. 

“Yes?”

“Why do we only blame the sirens?” I could see her confusion. 

“I’m sorry?”

“The sirens. Why aren’t they allowed to have power?”

“It’s story time now. We’ll discuss this later.”

We never did discuss it, but she must have told my grandmother, because she sat down next to me on my bed as she tucked me in that night. 

“Will you make me a promise, dear?” I wanted to ask what it was. But I nodded. “Listen to me. You must never go down to the water, alright? The sirens are evil things. They are not creatures of beauty. They will draw you to the edge with the very thing you want most, and then, they will pull you under. They will drown you, and I won’t be able to save you.” The last part I heard as a whisper when she got up to shut off the light. “I can’t lose you as well.” 

I could hear them arguing after she left. My grandfather was mumbling something about nightmares and me being too young, but I didn’t know why he was worried. My mother had never thought me too young. When I did go to sleep, my world was a swirling black-grey, and women with tendrils of hair floating around their faces like seaweed surrounded me. They smiled, razor-sharp teeth gleaming, but I felt no fear. When they grabbed at my wrists, I went eagerly, kicking myself further down into the pitch-darkness of the water. I could feel my lungs screaming in my chest, but just before I woke up, it began to sound like a song. 

I started taking swimming lessons the summer I was eight. My grandmother had signed me up for classes, but the instructor wouldn’t let me go to the deep end. So I started pocketing the cash my grandmother gave me for him and learning on my own. I would swim out to the deepest part of the pool and dive down until I reached the bottom, feeling the rough concrete against the backs of my thighs. It was hard for me to stay seated flat down there, so I began sneaking out two cans of the homemade peach preserves my grandmother kept in the cabinet and tucking them into the waistband of my suit. Then, I’d hold my breath for as long as possible, waiting until my vision started to turn black around the edges and my lungs felt like they were going to explode. Sometimes, if I let it get bad enough, I could convince myself the kicking legs under the water were the tails of sirens welcoming me home. 

Once I reached third grade, we started having siren safety classes in school. Once every month, a Fish and Wildlife officer would come to our classroom and teach us a course on the dangers of sirens. Step one: Stay out of the water. If you weren’t in the water, they couldn’t hurt you. Then they’d start to teach us some proper mental techniques to ignore their songs. With our eyes closed, we were supposed to take a breath in, then let out all the air in our lungs. Once we could feel our stomach touching our diaphragm, we were supposed to start listing the names of all the people in our life, taking a breath for each. A breath in for Mom, a breath out for Dad. A breath in for the kind man that works behind the counter at the bakery, a breath out for the girl that sits three seats back that you have a crush on. Each name was supposed to ground us to the here and now, remind us of why we shouldn’t let them take us. I sat in the back of the class, running my tongue along the disappointingly-flat edges of my teeth and wondering why everyone was so convinced that these creatures were evil. 

The songs got louder in the winter. Some said it was because there were less souls to corrupt. Others said they had to sing louder to be heard from under the ice. I just lay in bed, listening to the songs. I had started to map out my room, learning every creaky floorboard, so that I was finally able to make it to my window without alerting anyone. I’d sit in front of it and stare off in the direction of the lake. I couldn’t see it from our house, but it was there in my imagination, and I’d convince myself that the sirens were up at the rocks, staring back at me. 

I got a bike that Christmas. I’d convinced my grandparents that I wanted to learn to ride so that I no longer had to take the bus home from school. I spent all of winter break learning, and even though she protested it was too cold, my grandmother let me ride to school the first day back. As I rode home, I turned off the small, ill-used dirt road blocked off by the rusted barrier gate everyone ignored. There were a few abandoned beer bottles, an umbrella with a hole in it, and a smooth white shell that I pocketed. I rode all the way out to the edge of the hill, stashing my bike in the tall grass that lined the top of the cliff before it sloped down to the beach. The wind was brisk and strong, and the water was covered in white caps. I couldn’t see anything beneath the surface, but something told me they were there. I don’t know how long I stayed laying in the grass, but the sun was further down in the sky when I finally stood.

I put the shell on my nightstand that night. As I lay still and the songs began, I held it up to my ear, and I could hear the rush of the water behind their voices. It was surging and powerful, heady and intoxicating. I fell asleep with it tucked against the curve of my ear, and when I woke up, there were distinct marks along the side of my face, the ridges of the shell like scales against my skin. Fascinated, I brushed a finger along them, pressing the shell to the other side to try to get the same imprint. It was fainter, and it faded quickly, the white press turning back into smooth skin. There was something disappointing about it. 

I went to the lake at least once a week. The sirens never surfaced, but when the water lay flat and glassy, I could see them moving around as shadows under the surface. The light reflected like jewels, and I imagined they all wore crowns of sunlight. I didn’t understand how there could be any darkness about them. I began to wear my mother’s ring again, staring at the golden sheen when the light hit it and pretending it was my own set of jewels. Still, I never fully broke my promise. As I got older, I got closer, but I never set foot in the water. I spent years standing on the shore. 

Those years were also spent on the edge of society. If there was such a thing as inherited social pariahdom, I was most certainly a victim. This town was the kind that sucked you in and made it hard to leave, and as such, parents remembered my mother and took their prejudices out on me. I never received a single brightly-colored paper invitation to a birthday party, was never inducted into the secret society that was girls’ sleepovers, and when our school finally decided we were old enough for dances, no one awkwardly cornered me in a hallway to ask me to one. 

To make matters worse, my grandmother still insisted I go. I remember spending many nights in poorly lit corners of gymnasiums, trying not to choke on the fumes from the entire can of hairspray she had laced my hair with while tugging awkwardly on the glitter-covered polyester dress she had grabbed off the sale rack at the local Goody’s. Every now and then, in a fit of good samaritanism, one of the unlucky teachers who had been selected to chaperone would come over and ask me about my classes or offer to buy me a cup of lukewarm soda from the refreshments table. I eventually fine-tuned a system that could get rid of them in two minutes flat, though my record was forty-five seconds. 

While being forbidden didn’t inspire romantic declarations, it did inspire other teenagers eager for their first taste of defiance. In high school, I spent at least one afternoon a week behind the gymnasium with person after person, all of whom thought the secret to being a good kisser was too much teeth and an abundance of spit. They rejoiced in their rebellion while I tried to convince myself it was a palatable substitute for the one I truly wanted. I swore the sirens sang louder on those days. 

Eventually they grew tired of me and cast me off for real relationships with the kinds of girls whose hands they weren’t afraid to hold in the halls, or who their parents would invite over for dinner, and as I watched them, an unfamiliar ache began to grow in my chest. I began to want, what exactly I wasn’t even sure. They all seemed to have a sense of belonging, and for once, I found myself wishing I belonged as well. 

  My supposed salvation came from a stranger to town. He didn’t have my history to hold against me, and he seemed kind and sweet. He would take me on walks, picking up smooth, weather-worn rocks that fit perfectly in the palm of my hand and gifting them to me. I would cradle them and think of how they felt so different from the golden noose my mother had been given. He kissed me one day, sweet and slow, as if he was asking for nothing in return, and I began to think that maybe staying here, on dry land, was worth it. Then his touches became more demanding. He was insistent in his kisses, shoving himself into me when I didn’t want him. He said that it was what people like us did, people who loved each other. This was a new meaning of love for me. 

One day, he pulled out a black velvet box. Inside was a band of silver, not gold. He said it was a promise that there would be a better band one day. I thought of my mother’s, how it turned her skin green, and I thought of the green-skinned creatures that lived under the water. I thought of my future with this man, of having to give whatever he wanted because he saw me as his for the taking. And I thought of my mother, how she knew she belonged to no one. I thought of her courage to abandon the place she knew was not her home, no matter how many fought to convince her it was so. 

And so I went. 

I ran down to the shoreline, stripping myself bare as I went. My clothes were flung somewhere behind me on the shore, and as I stood at the edge of the water, I took off my mother’s ring, looking at the green it had left behind. All I kept was the shell, clutched in my palm, making ever-familiar scale marks against the soft flesh. I ran in, diving as soon as the water was deep enough, and I saw them for the first time. They were beautiful, pale green skin dappled by sunlight, teeth sharp in grins, and I laughed as they grabbed me, the sound bright in my chest. They sang with it, their voices a harmony to the burbling in my throat, and pulled me down, down, down into the darkness. It settled over me like peace, and as I opened my mouth to sing, I felt my tongue catch against the edge of a sharp tooth.

Abigail Wright (she/her) is a writer who was born, raised, and has somehow ended back up in small town, Kentucky. She received her BA in Writing from the University of Evansville, and mostly writes short stories and creative nonfiction, but has been staring down the barrel of a novel for quite some time. She loves how words help bring people together, and is trying to use them to put her world together. 

photo by Anna Goncharova (via unsplash)

A Man of Science—Molly Skinner

content warning: mentions domestic violence

I started drawing for my husband before he became my husband. 

RESPECTED ARCHAEOLOGIST SEEKS STUDENT SKILLED WITH A PENCIL TO DOCUMENT RECENT FINDS. PLEASE SEEK DR RAMSEY TRAQUAIR AT 17 MILLHOLLOW STREET.

So it began. Ramsey, out there on the beach, trowel in hand, hunting for fossils – myself perched on a bench or a soft patch of grass waiting for him. Listening closely to his talk of Darwin’s theories and the great discoveries he was sure to make. Dreaming of becoming a true artist one day, not merely an illustrator. 

Before either of us knew it – or perhaps before I knew it – short conversations on the surf became meetings in his office at the university, became dinner at my parents’ house (Oh to have a gentleman in our home! A scientist no less!), became a ring on my finger and a ticket from the Irish coast to the streets of Edinburgh with his new professorship.

Just as the earth birthed his fossils, my body brought forth the children. Five babes have sat upon my lap now; two have full laps of their own. There was little time to draw and sew.

Then the letter arrives. 

My sister writes from London where she lives with her own brood. She has received a copy of Walter Pater’s new book and believes there is one story in particular I must hear. She has written it out for me. 

By candlelight, I begin to read the tale of Denys L’Auxerrois.

The rain soaked her clothes straight through. Chased from home by parents who wondered at the origin of the child that grew within her, the girl could hardly see for the rain. The rain. She stumbled on until she felt the knobbled fig tree, and lay against it. 

The heavens themselves shook. 

This is no metaphor. Caged by Hera for his trespasses against her, Zeus, mighty God of the Gods could only watch as the village girl he had fallen for withered against the old tree.

He raged inside his cage as she looked to the sky for her lover. What good is it to love a God when you shall die like a lamb lost in the mire? The tears stopped now, she clutched her stomach, feeling the ripple of the child that writhed in defiance of his fate. 

As the breath left her body Zeus’s scream was heard throughout the world. With a heft of rage he broke the bars with his hands alone. Too late. 

Too late to save his lover, he sent to earth a lightning bolt that split her belly in two. 

When the sun came in the morning, the farmers found no body – just a babe in the shade of a fig tree, pink and laughing. 

It was a retelling of a story we had heard in childhood. I dropped the pages to the floor, reminded all at once of the girl I had been, who dreamt of Gods and Goddesses and whispered secret desires to her sister in the night. Reading those words, I knew I had found my long-forgotten muse. This was the story I would make flesh with my pencil, needle and thread.

I told our housekeeper Catherine first. Her ear is often kinder to my thoughts and wishes than I have found Ramsey’s to be. I did not wish my dream trampled just as it began to sprout. I read to her the story from the letter and she agreed – it was a fine subject for an embroidery. 

First, to the designs. No; first to the sketchbook in which to do the designs. Wrong again, first to the coins to buy the sketchbook to create the designs. 

When I became Ramsey’s wife I found I was no longer to be paid for my illustrations of his work and that each month it was Ramsey who would decide how his money was spent. With my re-discovered passion, this old argument surfaced once more. But he would not be persuaded to patronise his wife playing dress-up as an artist. 

A solution was offered by Catherine. Unbeknownst to Ramsey, might she store the change she brings back from the market in an old biscuit tin in the kitchen? 

So it was agreed, Catherine would save the change and I would purchase what I needed in secret – passing it off as materials I already owned. This was easy to do. Ramsey had never paid much attention. 

I set to work on my very own Denys L’Auxerrois.

One afternoon, as Ramsey walked from his study to our bedroom, he peered into my drawing room for perhaps the first time – and entered.

The designs for the embroidery lay on the table, the fabric neatly draped across my armchair – filled with pins and needles to plot my beginning. 

Before I could stop him, it was set in motion. While my back was turned he reached out, picked up the fabric and found himself pricked by a needle.

Cradling his wound, he moved as if to strike me for harming him. After all our time together I found I do not even flinch. My embroidery lay on the floor.

When I was left alone once more, I quickly rescued my work and inspected it. The design I had settled upon was a life-size drawing of Denys L’Auxerrois himself – and now Ramsey’s blood had marked the figure’s face.

Right there in the middle of the stain, lay a single piece of thread so fine even Rumplestiltskin could not have woven it.  

They refused to name the babe for a week at least. The girl’s parents would not claim him. It was the widow on the edge of the village that took him in. With one grin from this cherub, she could not refuse.

As the child grew it seemed as if the earth grew with him, a touch of his soft palm and the flowers would sprout. Should he choose to sit upon a patch of barren earth only a few days need pass for it to flourish. This did not go unnoticed. Soon, the widow found her summer child was needed. 

Let the boy run through the fields, they’d say! Bring to us the harvest! Adorned in flowers and running through the streets the boy did not fear his growth into a man. We never do, in the spring and summer of our youth.

I continued working on the embroidery, but with each stitch I was drawn back to the mystery of that solitary shimmering thread, resolving to find its origin and stitch my Denys’ eyes with it. 

I began by searching through the skeins I had ordered out on the table but found only the expected colours. Next, I searched the bag of offcast threads – emptying it onto the floor, inspecting each piece slowly. 

At one point or another Catherine came to me and we sat, the two of us, untangling the threads. Ramsey watched us from the doorway – wondering perhaps as to why his wife would waste her time with a housekeeper and why a housekeeper would waste her time with his wife. 

We searched and searched but could not find a match for the thread I found in the bloodstain. 

Catherine insisted that it must have arrived from somewhere. While Ramsey’s fossils may seem incomprehensible, they are simply animals buried in the earth – waiting for us. 

Could the thread have been waiting for me?

I watched Ramsey’s chest rise in the night and the idea knotted itself into my mind. 

Sometimes, I reasoned, you must prove to yourself that a wild thought is not true. 

As Ramsey slept I took my embroidery scissors and nicked a small hole in the back of his neck. He jerked as I did it, but within seconds was back to sleep. The sting only of a bee perhaps.

At first, I could not believe what I had done. I had never returned Ramsey’s violence upon him, now here I was – cutting into him.

When I settled my shaking hands myself, I surveyed the wound. 

At first, I thought a hair must be caught in the quickly congealing blood. I plucked the end with my forefinger and thumb, but when I pulled – there was no end. 

Out from the hole in his neck, I pulled a length of thread that seemed to glint even in the darkness.

I snipped it with my scissors. He did not wake. 

Denys grew slower than the other children, slower than all other children born to the mortal world before him. His heart wrapped in lightning.

Over time the widow died, so her grown niece took in the boy – no older now than ten in appearance. 

The seasons changed and the niece died too. The boy became a young man of sixteen or so and was passed to the niece’s daughter. The village became a town. The niece’s daughter died. 

The boy became a man and the fields in which he used to run were lost in all but memory.

I was unable to eat for a week following my defiling of Ramsey’s body that night. I dared not even show Catherine what I had harvested from within him. I kept my small length of thread spooled inside a thimble carefully placed on my dressing table – unable to reckon with my act and equally unable to forfeit my prize. 

Catherine, believing my malaise to be about the missing thread, reassured me that in a few weeks we would have saved enough in the tin to purchase even gold thread should I want it. 

Before too long Ramsey left for a research trip, promising to bring discoveries on his return that would shape our age. It is the noblest of professions – as I am so often told.

I found the bed far warmer occupied only by my own thoughts. 

I spent the time he was away sewing. Pausing only to eat when Catherine begged it of me. 

I told her how I had first learnt to sew from my grandmother. Showed her how to secure the fabric with wooden hoops and tighten until you could beat the cloth like a drum. Spoke of the seamless blend of embroidery stitch; the sculptural qualities of raised work; and my favourite stitch: couching – where one thread is laid upon the surface of the fabric and another holds it down. 

I taught Catherine to couch thread as we sat, arm grazing arm. She pursed her lips with concentration as she followed my instruction. That serious look upon her face. 

Each year Denys would walk into the square to mark the coming of spring. But the townspeople did not need the crops to grow and as the years passed even the meaning of the ceremony was lost. 

Denys, older than the hills now, son of Zeus and a girl whose name has slipped from time, dresses in flowers with a horned crown. He apes the ceremonies of the past as a crude show for the townspeople who chase him through the streets like generations long deceased.

Denys is no myth nor man, but puppet on a string enacting times gone by – a mockery of his former self.

Ramsey returned on a Sunday morning, slipped through the house briefly to greet us, delivered fossils for illustration and left once more for the society to present his findings. 

When he arrived home properly, it was getting dark outside. If he noticed the fresh bags under my eyes or how my greying hair now seemed even thinner, he did not mention it. He did note however the chill throughout the house. 

On command, Catherine fetched the coal for the fireplace only to find the shed bare. Ramsey made a show of how the cold affected him and complained of his empty pockets. I thought of the coins we had saved for the embroidery and slipped into the kitchen.

The little tin – which usually clinked with promise – made no sound. 

With a turn I found Ramsey standing behind me with Catherine by his side, eyes downcast. 

There was no great mystery. That morning Ramsey had arrived home and discovered our secret simply by opening the wrong container in search of something sweet. 

The money is gone. Denys will go unfinished. 

He is calm as he tells us this, but his grip does not move from Catherine’s arm. When he is finished he marches us both out to the hallway and reaches for the cane that leans by the door.

Was it not Ramsey’s money she had stolen? Should he not punish a servant for theft? 

I can close my eyes but I cannot block her cries from my ears. 

I bite at my own arm to stop myself from howling. 

As Denys runs through the street now, his outstretched hands touch trees and grass but the magic of yesterday is lost too. 

Worse, worse still, his fingers, once soft and loved, have grown calloused. He runs and runs towards the edge of the town to the spot where he took his first breath and reaches for the ancient fig tree that remembers his birth.

One touch is all it takes to catch his finger on the bark. 

Ramsey and I spoke only to arrange the illustration of his specimens. When Catherine came in from the market she was to greet him alone, dropping the coins into his outstretched hand. 

All work ceased on the embroidery; Denys golden hair was left half finished, sewn flowers lay waiting to bloom and a blank space on the fabric stared back at me where his eyes might go.

Ramsey made one final gift of reconciliation: the latest leather-bound journal in which he had been published. 

Sat beside me, He flicked through the academic articles until his own appeared and pointed to the attribution. 

ARTICLE FROM PROFESSOR RAMSEY TRAQUAIR. ILLUSTRATIONS WITH ASSISTANCE FROM MRS. RAMSEY TRAQUAIR.

“I had them include you as an addition.”

His name looked back at me from the page. 

Cut upon a tree which once blossomed at his touch, Denys blood flows forth. Below the earth the Fates wake from their eternal slumber for this child of a God. 

They three watch as the townspeople are driven mad by the smell of Denys’ ancient blood. Into the air and into their lungs it spreads as they are all at once returned to their savage origin.

With outstretched hands they tear his body limb from limb. 

 No pieces left to scatter in the wind. 

Much to Ramsey’s surprise, the gift did not work – our life together destroyed with Catherine’s tender skin. I made plain my unwillingness to live as before. He wrote to our children that I grew unreasonable with age like an old dog who can no longer be trusted.

One morning I found Catherine dusting my dressing table, her hair piled atop her head with wisps falling to frame her gentle face. When I greeted her, she jumped with surprise and knocked over the thimble – revealing the thread I had hidden within. 

‘You found it!’ 

‘I did.’

‘Will you buy more? I have been thinking I could put one or two of the coins under the doormat before I come into the house?’

‘There’s no need Catherine, thank you for thinking of me.’

There really was no need.

I watch Ramsey as he sleeps. I think of the young girl in his office, his hand on her knee – of those lonely years away from her family seemingly pregnant more than she was not, of the work he took from her without payment or thanks, of each time she tensed in his presence, unsure of what might come. 

I think of my embroidery – and plunge my scissors into his neck.

As he wakes I straddle his back with my knees. Sitting atop him now. 

There, once more in the wound, is the end of the thread.

I pull it out through the hole, out from the inside of his body, pulling and winding and wrapping it around my hand as I go. He thrashes now, attempting to push me off, crying out. 

Catherine arrives at the doorway. 

She does not shout or run but holds him down with me. 

I feel the thread catch inside of him, tied somewhere within the cavern of his chest.

I pull with both hands – until I unravel him. 

The children weep when the news arrives. His heart had given out, or so the Doctor says.

Could it be that Ramsey’s end was set from the moment of our meeting? Just as Denys’ death was written in his birth? 

Both man and boy cut down by fate.

One lives at least, immortalised in the embroidery with eyes that glint even in the din.

I am told it is hard to look away from my Denys L’Auxerrois. He greets each visitor now in the hallway of our home – hung on the wall by my Catherine’s strong hands. 

Molly Skinner is a writer, audio producer and art lover based in London. Her work has been published by TSS publishing and performed live by Liars League. In her day job she helps museums around the world tell their stories. She is currently working on a podcast series for the Greater London Authority about diversity in the public realm. 

photo of an embroidery by Phoebe Anna Traquair (via National Galleries Scotland)
Creative Commons CC by NC

We Escape into the Recesses—Spencer Nitkey

content warning: suicidal ideation

  1. The animals scurry. Their hairs twitch against the coming storm. The pressure changes. The air heaves, and it is almost unnoticeable. Lorena’s skin feels it. Lorena does not. Underneath a tree, between the roots, the dirt is pulled out and tunneled. Quivering noses and their trembling bodies bury downward. She knows it is going to rain when her ankle and pinky finger ache. She’s broken both, and now, minutes before a downpour, she feels pain, or, more accurately, the reminder of pain, an echo of their shatter. She looks up at the sky, almost washed out with grey, and starts to run. She sprints over the brambles and fallen branches as the rain pushes down, finally. She is headed towards home, where her mother is waiting with a boiling pot and almost every part of the stew except the roots Lorena is bringing back, tucked against her skin under the sagging and soaked shirt. The rain pours. The brooks she leaps are roaring. In a moment, the sky will open and crack. The ground will reach for air and the white, hot flash of lightning will sear. The creatures know this. The hairs inside their ears stand up and they cower deeper. The insects’ spindled, centipedal legs make zig-zagged lines in the mud. The moles burrow. The squirrels jump from branch to branch, dripping wet. Lightning splits a tree in half only a few feet from her. She should scream. She feels the heat of it against her. She laughs instead, running a little faster, her feet making larger and larger splashes in the puddled ground. The oppressive weight of the rain is an invitation. The forest is hers. The animals are hiding from the rain, beaten back. The wilderness belongs to her. The harder it pours, the faster she runs. The storm and her race like two children. The rain slicks off her dress. She slips and tumbles. She laughs again, her pant legs cloaked in mud. The rain will wash it off. She comes to the edge of the forest. She skids like she’s at the edge of a cliff. The trees drop off and stop. They are sentries, tall guards at the edge of a kingdom. In the distance she can see her home. Her cottage. Where her mother is waiting. Where her brother is wheeling a toy car along the floor, and under the table, and through the legs of the three chairs. She turns back. The forest dances under the rain. Branches and leaves bend and bounce under the heavy downpour. Lorena looks out. The sky is noisy, but the forest is quiet. She could run back. Leave her quiet and too-empty house. She could learn to listen to the goosebumps on her skin. She could find a tree, thick with age, and dig between its proud roots. She could sink beneath the surface. She could pick at beetles and run down deer. She could cover her back in animal hide, and dance between the lightning bugs. It is right there. The emptied forest. Swaying arms open. The roots press against her stomach. She cradles them with one arm. The smoke rises from the chimney. She could go home. She could sniffle throughout the night, and shiver beside the fire. She could cool. The forest could kill her. The rain could kill her. A small spider underfoot could kill her. The lightning strikes again. This time back, farther from the edge. She waits to hear its thunder. Though things in her cottage could kill her too. Her brother could hit puberty and develop muscles and a sex drive, and a temper and kill her. A lot of men could kill her. Her prom date could kill her. Her mother could become old and senile with grief and forget which mushroom she is supposed to pick and they could spend three hours vomiting and then die. The rain could kill her at home. It could bring down a tree on top of them. It could form a sinkhole and swallow them. The loneliness could kill her. Though that would be slow. Life, the more she thinks about it, has no shortage of ways to kill you no matter where you are. Life is not so much the opposite of death as its home. So death and its many bodies will not help her. The thunder rattles the trees. The few birds too frozen to fly before the storm scatter now. Black tears in a grey sky. She does not want to be unhappy, but feels that unhappiness is an inevitability. She wants her father’s warm and large hands to hold her. The forest has a thousand hands. The forest will help her palms and fingers grow strong and calloused. She will strain against stone and bark and her hands will grow thick and twisted like tree stumps. Perhaps then she will be able to carry herself, she thinks. At home her hands will stay soft. They will be strong, sure, and perhaps her fingertips will harden, burnt like her mothers, but they will not be gnarled. They will not look strong. They will look delicate. She sees the lights of her cottage begin to glow against the darkening sky. The rain beats her hair down against her face and down her neck. The clouds swell. There is a howling from the forest. Then, a chorus of noise. Lorena turns to the forest and thinks she sees red eyes back behind the shadow of trees. She steps back twice. The back of her shoe hits a stone, and she tumbles over into a puddle. The roots fall from her shirt as she pushes herself up. She turns to run. Her hands are muddy and dark. But she stops. She looks back at the red eyes and takes a step towards them. Nothing changes. The trees hum and clatter. Lorena walks into the arboreal music, her skin buzzing with energy. The red eyes watch, then blink, then scurry away.

  2. Bass shakes the fogged car. Inside, William presses his body against Charlisse’s. Charlisse pushes her hips up into William. He shudders against the pressure. He fumbles, trying to press the seat back. He puts his hand up against the window and leaves a print on the sweat stained glass. They kiss. They make knots and loops with their tongues. It is fumbled and awkward, and William feels a deep insecurity and his arousal collide, head-first, horned bulls, inside him. Charlisse wraps around the small of William’s back. She slips a hand up the front of his shirt and plays with his chest hair, twirling the new strands around her fingers. William presses his face into hers, like he can slip inside her skin, like she can consume him, like he can become a passenger. After, William’s face burns red under the parking lot lights. After, they turn off the music and sit in the silence. “What do you think happened to your sister?” Charlisse asks, under the melody of crickets and frogs. William doesn’t answer. The closeness he felt is now a chasm. The question wedges in between them, screws into their sides and splits them apart. How long had it been on the tip of her tongue, he wonders. He doesn’t look at her, or see her face, or realize that she wants to be tight to him, that for her the question is a rope, a bind, and that this is what people who love each other do: whisper secrets in the dark. She doesn’t know that he has no answer. That he suspects she killed herself, but that once, when he was younger, he suggested this to his mom, who was still looking for her nightly, uploading pictures to websites and knocking on suspicious men’s doors, and she slapped him across the face and broke into tears. There is no way to really grieve, he knows, and they both ignore this moment. He breaks up with Charlisse the next school day, over a half frozen hamburger meat and tears. “You used me,” Charlisse says. William remains silent. When he goes home, he crawls into his bed. He plays opera on his turntable. He closes his eyes and tries to imagine what his sister would look like now. He imagines her taller. He pictures her with dyed hair and a spider web tattoo on her elbow. He tries to hear her laugh, but it keeps coming out as the soprano’s lilting voice. He smokes, blowing the scent out of the window over his bed, and waits to get high. He imagines her shoeless, ankle-deep in a river. She motions for him to come closer, but he can’t move. He is a statue, or limbless, the cracked torso of a forgotten Greek hero. He can’t see the details of her face. They are covered by mud and dirt. He can see her eyes, wide and blue and shining. She smiles behind the mud. Her yellow teeth don’t distract from the dimples that crack the dried mud. She smiles and makes words he can’t understand. She opens her arms, welcoming him. He wants to come to her but he can’t. He watches a deer kneel down in the river next to her and drink. He watches her muscular body twist and contort. He watches her grab the deer’s antlers and snap its neck. He hears the pop. The deer crumples. His sister kneels down and rips at its throat, then its stomach with her teeth. She tears into it and feasts. She turns and looks up at him, holding its fatty liver out, like an offering. She looks into his eyes, and is arresting. He cries in his bed, motionless behind his silent tears.

  3. The onion, carrot and celery are sliced thinly. The flat end of a knife slides them from the wood into the boiling broth. They splash and tumble. Lorena’s mother stirs the pot and watches three crows waddle through the uncut grass in her front yard. Yesterday a neighbor had come over and offered to cut it for her. He slipped and admitted that her lawn made the neighborhood look trashy, but he had, at least, tried to be nice. She thanked him, but told him she’d get to it soon and not to worry. The pot steams. She can smell her son’s marijuana from upstairs. Air bubbles race from the bottom of the cast-iron to the top, disappearing right at the surface of the water, losing their shapes and selves completely. They dredged the lake they thought she’d drowned in, where teenagers went and dared each other to jump off the rock faces. She’d gone night swimming by herself and drowned, they thought. Someone had seen her walking that way, twisting and turning through the woods. They didn’t find her body. They found tiny fish bones and bracelets and condoms. She stirs the soup. The broth sloshes up. The white insides of the pot rise and sink. She wants to go upstairs and ask Will for a hit, to make dinner taste more. They hadn’t found any of her clothes but they’d looked. She wants to put on the TV, or the radio, like her parents used to over the dinner table. She’d watch them stop and dance together when a slow song came on. They’d kiss softly as it ended, and smile at each other. She and her husband had never slow danced like that. They’d loved each other in spurts of passion and long slow years of pragmatism. They never slipped into complacency—she would come home to flowers once every few months. But there was a depth, an earth, that she sometimes felt missing even before he died. How far she was from a family. How weak she felt beside the one tie left, crumbling each day. She wants to put on the TV, but then she won’t hear the faint sound of Will’s music. That small, slipping noise, muted and faded, is all she has tying the two of them together right now. Outside the crows fight over a worm one of them found stranded above the dirt. They jump back and forth and spread their wings and caw until one of them gives up and launches in the sky. They weren’t closing the case, just putting it on the back-burner for a while. They were waiting for relevant and/or pertinent information to make itself available. She forgets where she is and leans her hand down onto the edge of the pot. It sears a bright red line across the side of her palm. She moves to the sink and runs it under cool water.  They thought they had found her body but it was someone else’s, a hiker from out of state who had gone missing three days before her daughter. They dragged up the body from under a layer of fallen leaves. It was covered in mud and maggots and was unrecognizable. She worried it would give her nightmares, but it hasn’t. Instead, she dreams and watches Lorena pick the maggots of the dead body’s skin and chew them. She watches her swallow the insect protein. Lorena’s arms are lithe and taut. The muscles beneath them feather and ripple against her skin. Lorena looks strong and terrifying in all of her mother’s dreams. The skin swells up under the red mark on her hand. She has a sudden urge to dig into the skin with her kitchen knife. To cut out the affected area. To carve her way out of the hurt. She doesn’t. She knocks on William’s door and tells him that dinner is ready. Over their bowls of soup and the loaf of garlic bread in the middle of the table, she rubs her fingers over it and ignores his bloodshot eyes, deciding that tomorrow, she is going to steal her son’s weed and get so high she can’t see straight.

  4. William doesn’t even bother sneaking out. He just strolls past his mother, snoring and splayed on the couch, and the half rolled joints and burn marks on the glass table in front of her. He leaves the door open behind him. A cool wind meets the heat of their home.

  5. Mom wakes up to a black night sky and an open front door. She calls out for William. Her mouth is a desert. She is alone. The outside fills every recess of her home. She limps upstairs, her foot numb, pulsing with static. In her room, the bed is too large. She cannot sleep in it. She cradles at the edge, most of the sheets and blankets untouched, and rocks. She faces away from the center, over the side. The room is heavy with fresh and open air. There is no one here.

  6. William walks to the edge of the forest and screams. He tears his throat. He takes stones and throws them into the side of trees and watches the bark shatter off, and wishes he could strike a match and burn.

  7. Mom sees her husband in the open closet. He fills in a hanging suit, the grey he wore in winter. His legs fill the dangling slacks. Just for a moment she sees him.

  8. William walks to the edge and collapses. Overhead the sky churns over itself. Clouds fall and fold. The sky coalesces and brims. It sags with weight. William isn’t screaming anymore. He slides his back down the tree and looks back towards civilization.

  9. Her husband is gone. Her arms fall through the empty fabric. She coughs on the stirred up dust. She sits beneath the husk of him. She hugs his pant leg and cries.

  10. William will find a cliff and jump. He walks through the woods until he finds a precipice he is sure will kill him. There is melodrama and there is the singing, somewhere of his sister’s forgotten voice. He steps forward and closes his eyes. He feels the bloody arms of his sister wrap around his waist and knows he is ready to die. He is thrown back.

  11. Mom turns on the stove tops but doesn’t light them. She closes all the doors and windows and waits for her house to fill with gas. She holds William’s lighter, her hands like a prayer. Her husband’s ghost runs his hands up her spine. He turns through the cupboards. He folds laundry and his deep voice, soft and rasping, sings a soft song, and they finally slow dance in the kitchen, her head on his chest, waiting for each heartbeat. He looms over an empty crib. He laughs at Lorena’s jokes. He cradles William. He kisses her and leans his head against her neck. William is gone somewhere. William is gone, and he left her. She will call the police and they will tell her, in serious voices they will do everything they can to find him. They will mobilize and search. They will find a dead body crawling with rot that isn’t his. People will be sorry, but not that sorry. One missing child is a tragedy. Two is a punishment. She will skip their hollow sorries. She will skip the news interviews. She will skip everything and get right to the dying that comes when everyone in her life is gone. She closes her eyes. The rain falls down, heavy against the roof and the gutter, clamoring in a sudden burst for the ground.

  12. Lightning flashes and Lorena stands in the doorway. Her hair is matted and thick. Her mother looks up and sees her. She is silhouetted against the cracking lightning. Bright flashes light the gaunt edges of her frame. Her outline melts behind the street lights. The suburb is quiet. Houses glow against the storm, and families retreat to their living and bedrooms. They huddle, on instinct, for warmth. Lorena holds her hand out towards her mother. Mom shakily puts the lighters down. She takes small steps towards her daughter, waiting for her to vanish into a broom or a bird. She grabs Lorena’s hand. It is rough and knotted. It is like the side of an ancient tree. It feels like her father’s. Mom holds it lightly as Lorena leads her outside. Mom closes the door behind her. William is waiting on the lawn, petulant and wide-eyed. Lorena places wilderness in their throats, and they cannot speak. They follow her along the side of the house and towards the backyard. They walk towards the woods. They weave between houses and homes until they are at its precipice, and pause. They see rows of blinking red eyes. Lorena steps into the woods and turns back, right before the darkness and uncertainty swallow her. William and his mother hold hands. Far away, down the hill, their house is struck by lightning and erupts. It is enveloped in fire. Just behind the thin curtain of darkness and rain, Lorena waits for them. They cannot hear the music. Instead, they hear scuttling, murmuring—it is discordant, asynchronous, and chaotic. They cannot hear the music but Lorena can. The wilderness in their throats vines and weeds and weaves up into them. The moss moves over its stone, spreads and greens, its verdant limbs thin and many. The sky presses down one last time and stops. The gray hangs low, bowed. William and his mother walk to meet Lorena. The wilderness drags them to their knees. It spills out of their ears. Together, they crawl into the arboreal music.

Spencer Nitkey is a writer living in New Jersey. His writing has appeared in Apex Magazine, Apparition Lit, Fusion Fragment, and others. You can find more about him and his writing on his website spencernitkey.com. You can also find him on twitter @Spencer_Nit.

photo by Tengyart (via unsplash)