Ferrari—Helena Baptiste

I stand at the bedroom window, my fingernails digging into the window sill and worry about Gregg’s prized Ferrari because there’s a bull—big and black and threatening like a bull is supposed to look—outside near the detached garage in the too-bright glare of the security lights. Sometimes the bull gallops back and forth across the lawn, tossing its great head, scaring me with its horns, other times it just chews its cud, waiting. I first noticed the bull last night when I couldn’t sleep. Gregg was snoring as he usually does, his exhalations and inhalations Hoovering up the carpet and the roof and the walls. It felt like I was in an earthquake, everything rumbling and the ground undulating beneath me, making me dizzy and lightheaded and shaking me out of bed. I steadied myself against the dresser I hadn’t wanted, the one Gregg insisted we buy because he says his taste is better than mine. That’s when I first saw the bull.

Gregg keeps his cherry-red Ferrari in the detached garage. He only drives it during the summer, so he has limited insurance on it for the rest of the year. I’m not allowed to go into the garage or near it. Gregg says the garage is the inner sanctum, the “holy of holies.” I park my car (a Ford, which Gregg insists stands for Found On Road Dead) on the street as if I’m only here for a short visit.

I watch the bull out the back kitchen window as I make chamomile tea to wash down a couple of melatonin tablets. I mean, it’s not doing anything, really, just being a bull. But still. I wonder if I should tell Gregg. He’ll probably just say that he doesn’t see anything, or if he does see it, he’ll say that it’s my fault, that I’m the one endangering his Ferrari, that there was no bull in his backyard before I came.

The night before I first saw the bull Gregg had told me that I didn’t dress sexy enough, so I think about where I can go to find sexier clothes as I sip my tea. I don’t want to spend too much: Gregg will have something to say about that as well. When I was younger people used to say I dressed too sexy. They were always commenting on the neckline of my shirt, the length of my skirt or how it clung to the contours of my ass. I thought once I said “I do” I wouldn’t have to deal with that bullshit anymore. Marriage would cloak me in the most respectable of garments: virgin white, dove gray, pale pink; refined, reserved, delicate. Something classic. Something worth cherishing. Now it turns out I’m not sexy enough.

I’m wearing the new dress I bought and we are going out to dinner. I like the dress, form-fitting, black and sleek, sleeveless. It does make me feel sexier. I found it at a consignment shop but I don’t tell Gregg that. We pull up to a ridiculously expensive restaurant, one of those lauded places where they pile your food up in the middle of the plate in some sort of design and you’re not really sure what it is or if you want to eat it, but it looks stylish. Gregg likes these kinds of restaurants. I remember how he took me to a ritzy steakhouse when we first started dating and I ordered my steak well done. He said that he’d be taking me to Western Sizzler from then on. I’d laughed.

Gregg parks the Ferrari himself because he never trusts valets and I walk into the restaurant to wait for him. When he returns, later than what it should have taken, he seems flustered and snaps at me for no reason. I want to order the filet—I love filet mignon—but don’t because now that I’m wearing sexier clothes I really should lose ten pounds. Perhaps this was what this was about all along; Gregg wants me to lose ten pounds but didn’t want to come right out and say it. I eat my thin soup, making sure to sit up straight and lift my spoon correctly. I imagine I’m a movie star filming a scene of a woman dining alone.

As we leave the restaurant, a man looks at me appreciatively and I almost smile, but then Gregg blurts out, “Take a picture, it’ll last longer!” so I don’t. He stalks off to get the Ferrari and then we’re home and he’s asleep and snoring and I’m awake at the kitchen window again, sipping chamomile tea and looking at the bull.  I don’t like my tea without sugar but I’m drinking it unsweetened because I’ve got to lose those ten pounds and maybe it’s thinking about all the little things I love that I have to give up—like sugar in my tea—that drives me outside into the backyard.

The bull is still near the detached garage, but the Ferrari is locked away and safe. I, however, am in my dorm shirt and slippers with a cup of bitter tea and a bull on the lawn. Greg had promised he’d keep me safe. Long nights we’d spent talking when we were dating until I’d spilled everything: my childhood, the poverty, the abuse, the abandonment, my fears and he’d made me the promise. One night, when we’d been dating for a year, when I was sure he was “The One” he’d said, “You know, I really can’t understand what you’ve been through. I’ve always had a good and happy life,” and I was stunned how intense the hatred was that I felt for him for a moment.

The bull is pacing back and forth across the yard, tense. I watch the powerful muscles bunch and undulate beneath the glossy black hide, the massive penis bobbing and the heavy scrotum swinging low. Looking at it I am fascinated and disgusted at the same time. I think about giving the bull a name. After all, he doesn’t seem to be going anywhere now that he’s taken residence in the backyard. I try out different names in my head, but I can’t settle on one. Some of the names are too dark, terrifying; others so light and inconsequential they might float away into the starry night sky. I lose myself in a waking dream about dancing in a field of wildflowers, weaving a garland of blossoms and draping them around the bull’s horns. The end of the garland in one hand is comprised of beautiful spring flowers, bright and lush; the other end turns black and wilts as I hold it and I wonder how one thing can be two different things at once.

On the grass, here and there, I notice black spots. Then it dawns on me what it is. Cow patties! I stifle a giggle and steal a sideways glance at the neighbors’ houses. All their windows are dark. Whew! Gregg would blow a gasket if he knew. A friend—he was my friend, what happened to him?—used to joke that Gregg spent his spare time lying on his stomach on the lawn with a ruler and a pair of manicure scissors and he wasn’t far wrong (Really, what happened to him? My friend? He used to make me laugh). I run into the house to get a garbage bag, a gardening trowel and some rubber gloves. I clean up as much of it as I can until my back starts to hurt, but I worry that Gregg will see spots where the dung was fresh and stuck to blades of grass, particularly near the detached garage where the Ferrari is stored.

The bull remains by the garage, thoughtfully chewing its cud, watching me frantically pick up its shit in the moonlight. Then it tosses its head from side to side, snorts, and disappears behind the garage. Standing in the backyard in my dorm shirt, my favorite slippers I’ll have to throw away and orange rubber gloves now brown with shit, I can’t help but feel the bull disapproves of me and it makes me disapprove of myself.

The next morning I cook Gregg his favorite breakfast—bacon and eggs—because he has an early golf game. I read somewhere that bacon and eggs used to be considered a king’s breakfast because, at the time, only royalty could afford to have meat for breakfast every day. I imagine Gregg sitting in the sunny breakfast nook, an ermine robe casually tossed over his sloping shoulders, a golden crown cocked precariously on his bald head. I stand propped against the kitchen counter and have only black coffee myself, though I like it pale with cream and lots of sugar. Gregg will take his truck to the golf course; he wouldn’t dream of stuffing a bag of golf clubs in his Ferrari, so I don’t worry about him seeing the shit stains that remain on the grass. Gregg loves golf and talks about it all the time. I don’t understand the game, but that may be because I’ve never played. Whenever I’ve tried to learn about it I always think about the old George Carlin joke that all golf courses should be used for housing the homeless.

When we were dating Gregg had relished telling me about one golf game he attended where someone had hired strippers who passed out beer naked and turned cartwheels for tips. I didn’t let it show but I’d been appalled by the story. I thought that people who could afford to play golf had more class and valued women and I wondered why Greg had even told me about it in the first place. I imagined the girls tumbling forever end-over-end across the greens like blow-up sex dolls caught in a gale and asked Gregg why he had participated. He said that’s what those girls were there for and that they had been doing them a favor, saving them, really, because the girls needed the money.

After Gregg leaves, I clear away the breakfast dishes and go through the motions of washing them: lift, wipe, rinse, dry, put away, repeat. Simple routine for simple dishes. In the dining room we keep our wedding china in a lighted glass display cabinet. Gregg had let me pick out the pattern, but only with his approval. We finally settled on one exquisite pattern, almost too beautiful to eat off, so we didn’t. 

Outside in the backyard there are more cow patties dotting the lawn like the round part of exclamation points. The bull is closer now, standing near the sourwood tree and the cherry tree halfway between the garage and the house; pawing the ground, his eyes bloodshot and wild. Watching. Waiting. I press my whole body against the kitchen window, willing the bull closer, daring it closer; my heart revving, wheels spinning, red blood pumping, pulse racing, feeling myself open, drawing it into me, but the glass keeps me safe.

Helena Baptiste is an aspiring writer whose work has been featured in The Weeklings and Aforementioned Productions. She is currently working on a young adult series.

photo by Mrdidg (via pixabay)

In the Trees—Brandon Applegate

content warning: domestic violence, death

The Texas summer shone yellow with dust and dry grass and sun. Daniel was eight years old and lived on a triangular plot of land. Two sides of the triangle were bordered by oak woods, tangled and gnarled and parched. The bottom third of the triangle, though, was road, hot and dark and flatter than the earth was supposed to be and more dangerous than a rattlesnake. More than anything in the world, Daniel loved the wood and hated the road. 

The wood loved Daniel in return. 

In the spring, the wood was green, with a canopy of leathery, wide leaves that acted as cover for the ground and that shot intense rays of sun through the gaps. In the fall, the leaves turned brown and dry and light and fragile and fell from the trees to create a blanket that you could gather over you and hide. In the winter the blanket acted as shelter for the things on the ground, the rabbits and snakes alike, and rotted on top of them with wet and mold as they bedded down and waited for the earth to come back alive. But in summer, as with all things in Texas, the trees, still green and full from the spring, stood defiant against the baking heat, staring down the sun to see who faltered first. In this behavior, this defiance and patience, Daniel found a kindred spirit, and so, in he, did the wood. 

So, in the summer, when Daniel was free from school and homework and the intrusions of friends, he would walk in the woods and talk to the trees, and they would shelter him as best they could from the intense, withering heat, and they would hold out together, until either the heat broke, or Daniel could take no more and would go back inside with the manufactured cool air and the manufactured entertainment and make plans to try again tomorrow. On these occasions, the trees of the wood expressed their disappointment. 

“You cannot stay a little longer?” They whispered. “You cannot stand a little more?” 

“I can’t,” Daniel said, and would be disappointed in himself, and would feel inadequate, and would hang his head and watch the ground as he walked back to his house, wishing he were a tree so that he could be strong and hard and gnarled and rough and thereby could weather anything and live for a thousand years. 

One summer day, when Daniel had run and played until he couldn’t anymore, he sat down between the roots of a particularly gnarled and tall and old tree at the center of the wood to rest. He and the tree were old friends, and so they talked for hours, Daniel of his family and his interests and his troubles, the tree of its life and changes it had seen and things it heard when it thought nobody was watching.

“I wish I were a tree like you,” Daniel said. 

“It is indeed a great life, long and slow and rich,” said the tree in its raspy whisper like two sticks rubbing together, “but why would you wish to be anything other than what you are?” 

“I am small and weak, and humans don’t live for very long,” said Daniel. 

“But you have dominated so much of the earth,” said the tree. “Surely you are strong, for your kind have felled many of mine.” 

“Tools,” the boy said. “We make tools so we can cut down even the tallest tree.” 

“Ah, but surely you grow large, because you take up so much space,” said the tree. 

“That is only because there are many of us,” said the boy. “Well then, you must be long lived, because when you cut us down, you never give us the chance to grow back,” said the tree. “That is only because we pass our property and our stories from one generation to the next, so they know how to use the tools, and they also take up too much space and even more,” Daniel said. 

The tree was silent for some time, and the more he thought about what the boy said, the more angry he became, until he vowed not to speak any more that day.

When Daniel realized what he had said, what he had done, he said, “I am sorry,” and he left the wood with his head hung low, this time not because he wished he was a tree, but because he feared he had destroyed a friendship, and that he would no longer be able to speak to the trees. 

Every night when Daniel went to bed, his parents screamed at one another. They would wait just long enough so that Daniel would be quiet and comfortable and wrapped and warm, and so they thought he was asleep, and then they would begin to talk. They never spoke to each other while Daniel was awake, but on these occasions they would start in whispers that Daniel could not make out, that sounded like painful secrets. The whispers would escalate into hushed voices, and Daniel, staring at his wall in the blue moonlight that filtered in through the blinds, could just make out a few words, most of which were no help and some of which were things like ‘beer’ and ‘money’ and other words that he was told were strictly for adults. Then, after some time had passed at this volume, and with a number of long pauses and thumps and doors slamming and feet stomping, the screaming would start. 

Sometimes, if he tried hard enough, Daniel could be asleep before this happened. On this night, though, his conversation with the tree kept him awake and worried, and his worries about his friendship smashed together with his worries about his parents fighting so that he could not have slept if he tried. So there, as always, was the whispering. It went on for some time and, if Daniel hadn’t known better, hadn’t been fooled on dozens of nights before, he would have hoped it would end there. After a while, as expected, came the hushed voices filled with words he either didn’t understand or wasn’t allowed to say. After a long pause filled with stomping and slamming, came the screaming. Tonight, though, Daniel thought it might be more than usual, louder, more desperate, and he lay there, trembling slightly, trying to determine if that was true or if it was just in his head. 

Then, there was a sound he hadn’t heard before. It was sharp and brief and meaty. It was followed by a scream and a thud. That scream belonged to his mother. 

If there was anything in the world Daniel loved more than the wood, it was his mother. She was gentle and kind to him. She protected him. She played, laughed, danced with him. When she punished him, scolded him, Daniel always believed it was because she loved him. That scream, short, like a mountain lion howl, had been hurt, angry, cornered, but it started with real pain. Daniel was afraid. His heart was beating so fast he could hear it in his ears and feel it in his fingertips. All the same, he knew what he had to do. She would for him. 

Daniel snuck out of bed. 

One foot and then the next, he tip-toed across his bedroom, down the hall and stopped before he entered the kitchen. The lights were on like they always were until his parents went to bed. He could hear his mother crying quietly. It was a low sobbing that did not sound like sadness to Daniel. It sounded like hate and pain. 

“Shut up,” his father shouted, sounding unhinged, out of control, his voice cracking with the effort, dancing around in too high an octave. 

The sobbing continued and Daniel stuck his head around the corner just in time to see his father, shirtless with starched jeans and leather boots, freckled, huge and hulking, all lean muscle in the arm and huge belly around the front that drug his spine forward in a curve, raising his right hand into the air, golden ring glinting in the fluorescent kitchen light as it arced back downward toward his mother’s pink face, already streaked with blood from her nose. There was that sound again but now it was loud as a gunshot and Daniel flinched. His mother let out a yipping bark of a scream from where she sat against the wall between the trash can and the refrigerator. She continued to sob, her left eye already starting to purple and swell, and she wiped her bleeding nose on her shirt sleeve. 

Daniel felt a jolt of panic. It started in his toes and shot like lightning up into his legs and spine and brain. He pulled in as much air as he could without making any noise and held it in his lungs, felt it burn with the want of release and then let it out. His eyes darted around the room looking for a way to stop this, to set this right. It will never be right, he thought. It will never be the same again. He felt a hot tear crawl down his cheek.

In the corner next to the dining table, against the wall, lay his father’s tool belt. Daniel’s father always discarded it there after coming in the back door after work, usually on his way to the fridge for a beer. Daniel’s eyes locked on to the pouches and scanned before finding what he was looking for.

The hammer. 

Daniel moved. It was three steps to the hammer. He scrambled for it and scooped it up. He pivoted on his right heel and made a bee line for his father. Daniel’s mother moaned, “Oh, god.” 

Daniel screamed, squeaky and cracked and panicked, “Leave her alone!” He swung the hammer out blindly. 

Daniel’s father just had time to turn his head toward the scream. His green eyes were unfocused with drink, his movement sluggish. The hammer made contact with his left kneecap and something cracked and moved in a way it wasn’t supposed to and pain shot up into his head, widening his eyes and toppling him back and to the left. As he hit the floor, injured leg shooting out in front of him, head flopping to the side and sounding a loud thunk against the refrigerator door, Daniel had the wild urge to scream timber. 

Daniel’s father lay against the refrigerator, still conscious but only just. He moaned incoherently and his eyes rolled in their sockets. His left leg jutted out in front of him and was already starting to swell. Daniel stood, stunned, unable for a moment to process what he had just done. He looked at his mother, her wide right eye red with fear and crying, her left swollen shut. Blood was coming out of her nose and her lip was split open. Her chest was spasming with sobs. 

“Oh, baby, no,” she said. 

“Mom,” Daniel said. They locked eyes. 

Just then, his father’s massive hand swiped at his face. He only just ducked out of the way. 

“Go,” Daniel’s mother growled. “Go,” she repeated, louder.

Daniel was already sprinting. He hit the screen door hard and it swung open. He was out on the porch and down the steps before it slammed behind him. Now he was at the edge of the lawn. 

His father stumbled through the screen door onto the front porch.

“Daniel,” he yelled. He might just have been calling him in from playing.

Daniel flew toward the wood. The wood was different at night. It whispered. Normally, upon entering the wood, Daniel would stop to greet a few of the trees, but he did not have time. The trees noticed his hurry, his panic, and they whispered to each other about it. Daniel could not make out the words and he did not stop to try. Daniel ran so fast that his tears didn’t fall all the way down his cheeks, but were swept back across his face and into the hair above his ears. The leaves crunched beneath his feet. He held his arms up to protect his face from the whipping twigs and branches that would dig at him as he ran blindly, but tonight his way was clear, as though it was deliberate. Daniel said a silent thanks. 

“Daniel!” His father’s voice sounded behind him, echoing, distant, crazed.

Daniel doubled his effort. His father would have seen him entering the wood, would have followed him in, but Daniel knew where he was going and his father did not and that might be an advantage. He was also faster and did not drink. But his lungs were aching as they emptied and refilled with damp night air, and each breath didn’t go as far as it did before and Daniel was starting to gasp and sob. 

“Daniel!” Closer now. Could his father hear him tearing through the leaves and grass and twigs on the ground? Daniel was looking over his shoulder, trusting too much in the cleared path ahead, so he slipped. He went down hard on his shoulder, the seam of his t-shirt tearing as a dead branch snagged both cloth and skin. He lay on his back, looking up and smiling. This was exactly where he wanted to be. 

“Tree!” Daniel shouted up at the massive old oak at the center of the wood. 

The tree said nothing, but Daniel swore he heard a grunt. 

“Tree, old friend, please listen,” Daniel said, mindful now of his shouting and lowering his voice. He could hear his father’s crazed shouts from somewhere off in the wood. 

“Say what you must,” whispered the tree. 

Daniel got up onto his knees. “My friend, please, you must protect me.” 

“From what?” The tree whispered. 

“My father is angry with me and is looking for me and I am afraid he will hurt me,” Daniel said, desperation creeping into his voice as he looked back over his shoulder.

The tree did not speak for a long moment, then said, “Surely a boy of your kind would have nothing to fear from his father.” 

“But he is drunk,” said Daniel, “and he has already hurt my mother.” 

“You must have done something to wrong him,” the tree said. It was difficult to make out, but Daniel swore he could hear a petty anger in the tree’s whisper. “Who am I to stand between a boy and some much-needed discipline?” 

“Please,” Daniel said, “Just let me climb up into your branches to hide.” 

“Surely,” the tree said, “you have some tool at your disposal you could use to protect yourself. Your kind have felled so many of mine. One of your own should be no problem. Or is it that you would like to give your father a reason to knock me down as well?” 

“Friend, I am sorry,” said Daniel through sobs that wanted to choke him. “I’m sorry, okay? I know you are angry with me, but I need your help.” 

There was a long pause, and the tree said, “No.” 

Daniel, too tired to run more, too afraid to scream, too small and weak to fight, simply turned his back to the tree and leaned his weight upon the solid trunk. He felt its warmth and rough bark through his shirt and his mind was taken away from here for a moment to days spent running and playing and he smiled in spite of his situation. He said up to the tree, “It’s okay. I know I hurt you and that you are angry, but I am still your friend, and I know you are mine. I will sit with you until this is over.” 

The tree did not answer. 

So Daniel sat and waited. 

Out of the woods in front of Daniel came a monster. His father, stumbling, shirtless, drunk and injured, dragged his nearly dead leg behind him. He was covered in cuts and bruises from the branches he had run through, and Daniel had the satisfaction of thinking that at least not all of his friends had abandoned him. His eyes, usually kind or worried when he was sober, blazed with green fire fueled by hate and violence and drink. 

“Dad,” Daniel said. “I’m sorry.” 

“There you are, Daniel.” His eyes darted around as if looking for anyone watching. 

“Dad, I’m sorry I hurt you. I love you. Please don’t.” 

But Daniel’s father did not answer. He dragged himself, grunting, toward Daniel, one step at a time. And when he got to Daniel, he reached down with both hands and picked Daniel up from under his arms and stood him on his feet and pressed his back against the tree and wrapped his shaking hands around Daniel’s throat and squeezed, and as he squeezed a scream built up in his own throat and as he screamed all the pressure, the anger, the fear, the hurt flowed out of his mouth and his hands and he was unable to stop himself as he saw the light, the life leave his son’s eyes, and when it was done and Daniel wasn’t moving anymore, he dropped Daniel on the ground again where he lay against one of the tree’s giant gnarled roots and began to cool to the temperature of the air around him. 

“Are you the boy’s father?” A voice whispered. 


“How could a father do something like that to his son?”

“Who is talking?” Daniel’s father spun in a circle, stumbling, eyes darting. 

“Is he dead?” More voices were whispering now. 

Suddenly, there were a chorus of voices all around him. They were asking so many questions, questions he didn’t know how to answer, didn’t want to answer. 

“No,” he said. “The boy’s fine, he’ll get up.” Daniel’s father looked at his son, crumpled on the ground by the tree root, small and helpless as the day he was born. “Get up, boy. Dan. Daniel. Get up.” 

“He will not get up,” the large tree at the center of the wood said. “He is dead. I cannot feel his heart beating in my roots, and I always could before.” 

“What? No.” Daniel’s father was swatting at the air around his head now as if trying to clear away a persistent gnat. “Who’s talking? Where are you? Get up, Daniel. We need to go home.” 

“You have killed him,” the tree said, and it was the loudest thing it had ever said. Its voice sounded like a saw through a log. “You have murdered your boy. You have murdered my friend.” 

“Murderer,” the other voices began to say, and it became a chant. “Murderer, murderer, murderer.”

“No,” Daniel’s father said and clapped his hands to his ears. “No!” 

He began to run blindly through the trees, through branches that stuck out into his path and he was sure they were being thrust there, jabbing him, scratching and poking him. The ground itself seemed to become softer, to give way beneath his footfalls and grab at his boots, pull at him, slow him, and all the time the whispered chant of “Murderer” followed him until he came to the edge of the wood where it bordered the road, and he stumbled out onto the pavement weeping and dizzy. The air out here was quiet and he curled up on the hot tarmac and convulsed with weeping until a car he didn’t see, and that didn’t see him, came and took his life. 

Long after the dogs had been called off and the searchers left without ever finding Daniel’s body, a sapling grew near the base of the big, old tree at the center of the wood. The big, old tree would talk to the sapling. “Is it everything you wanted?” Said the tree. 

“Well,” said the sapling, “I am small, and I am weak.” 

“Yes,” said the big old tree. “This is true. It is the secret that nobody ever tells you about being a tree, that first you must be small and weak and frail and if you can survive this, you can survive anything. In that way, I think that being a tree is very much like being a man.”

Brandon Applegate is an American writer focusing on dark, weird, and fantasy fiction. When he isn’t writing he is working at his job at an Austin, Texas-based technology company. He lives in Hutto, Texas with his wife and two girls.

photo by John Reed (via unsplash)

They—Amy Wolstenholme

The night They came was a thunderstorm night, the very sky a black-feathered bird calling: Now. Now you are at the place of oblivion. The stars above us were in flight, one moment visible, the next concealed, startling from the branches. In the day everything has its place and is confined to exist there. In the darkness, we all have the gift of wings. The moonlight unfurled along the razor edge of the leaves and the lightning pecked the Earth with the indifference of a beak: Now. Now you are obliterated. 

We ran through the storm as only children can, the sky fizzing over our skin, sparking against our teeth, certain in the belief we would not be struck down. After all, our feet fractured the ground just the same as lightning, gleefully cracking the spine of twigs and frozen puddles. That night only two of us had braved the storm, slipping out from bedroom windows into the cool embrace of darkness, eager to run wild and return wearing thorns.

My friend was the embodiment of savage childhood, all bowed knees and short, cowlicked hair, shaking raindrops from their skin, wearing them encrusted on their eyelashes. They were as wild as the sky, the very symbol of what it means to be young, alive and utterly uncaring. They swore brilliantly, not knowing or understanding the meaning, merely in love with the sound of fuck and goddamn and you son of a bitch whore you. They spoke the way birds sing, with complete dedication, enough that I would imagine birds turning to one another, singing: These humans, I wonder if there is any meaning to their tune?

That night was all human song, my friend’s chirruping voice and my listening ears and the sky screaming out a dirge, coming untethered like a funeral balloon.

‘Fucking rain,’ they said, but they wore it in every inch of them.

‘Fucking rain,’ I echoed dutifully, traipsing along behind them, my own skin cool and slick and damp with the fucking rain, and the way it squelched unpleasantly in my socks. My long hair was pasted to my head, stuck inelegantly over my mouth, such that it made a wet rattling sound against my lips when I breathed. My skin was so wet that I imagined breathing through it instead, more frog than child. 

Ahead my friend was a racing shadow; one moment visible, the next concealed. They headed for each puddle and mud-slick bank, running up and rolling down, their skin eventually so muddy that their eyes stood out like chips of struck flint, uncomfortably blue and ready to spark fire. They were eagerly contemplating death, playing out soldiers, and a stick was soon found and pointed, a bullet shot cleanly through my chest. I fell with an exaggerated groan, although I immediately regretted it. The ground was much too wet even for pretended death. Above me my friend danced in and out of their soldier skin, smearing mud further down their neck and up their arms, simply to feel. They threw themselves hard down onto the muddy bank, peering over the top.

‘We’ve got a live one oh boy, oh boy,’ they said, their voice warped in poor imitation of the Americans, their hands clenched around their gun-shaped stick. A cowboy now, they pushed their fringe off their head like the brim of a cap. The sky made a strange ripping sound and then fractured like eggshell. 

‘I’ll get the horses,’ I whispered, and went down into the night clicking my tongue softly, seeing the gleam of white mushrooms as the shine of hooves and satin black holly as wild, rolling eyes. I found a stallion and a mare, black as night the both, frothing at the mouth and gleaming with sweat as pure as starlight. I brought them up the bank to where my friend lay, gorgeous as a fucking bruise against the moonlit ground, and murmured: ‘Ready.’

‘You got the ammo?’ 

I handed over bullets, white as struck teeth, and then we slung them in belts across our bodies. I found a stick and pushed a bullet with a quiet snick into the handle, steadying my shaking hand against the butt. We were ready to ride. With a yell we threw ourselves up from the bank, hands clenched around invisible reins, steadying the wildly excited, plunging horses. We fired, screaming obscenities, whilst the sky cracked and whined like bullets, singing out our game of war. Now. Now you are obliterated.

Afterwards we could not have said what it was that made us stop. Everything has its place and is confined to exist there; the horses turned back to silent shadow. Perhaps it was the smell, the air suddenly sweet and coppery as blood, or the sucking sound of the sky. There was the feeling of something vast taking a breath, the world a single, wet alveolus, ready to burst.

‘Would you look at that goddamn tree?’ 

I screwed up my eyes to see. It was difficult to focus on, like trying to track the false image left by a camera flash. It was hard to pinpoint precisely what was wrong with it; perhaps it was that the bark looked like newspaper, paper-thin and tattooed black and white, or that the leaves appeared veinless even under the harsh moonlight. Many years later I realised that the most uncomfortable thing about it had been its symmetry. It looked like the tree children always draw – dead straight and uniform, unintended for three dimensions. 

As we backed away, eyeing the strange branches, the sky gave an electric hiss. We recoiled instinctively, closing our eyes, but the tree had already tattooed itself onto our eyelids. There was the sensation of breathing again, the world hacking up white foam from poisoned lungs but, although I counted, the thunder never came. For several minutes my world was a beautiful, blackberry purple, the image of a tree that looked too much like a tree burnt into my retinas. I felt my way to the ground, finding my friend already curled up and shuddering. When my vision returned I was facing them, their frightened eyes inches from my own, their skin curdled milk under the muck. 

‘We should go home,’ I whispered, but they were whimpering, their eyes darting up to something just over my head, then racing back to the ground again. 

‘What?’ I breathed, the words barely making it past my teeth. I imagined wolves with dripping red jaws and real soldiers, their eyes gun-metal grey and cold. My friend raised a trembling hand and pointed, their fingernail a ragged white moon against the sky. 

Summoning all my courage I rolled over, my eyes shut, flicking them briefly open. The tree still stood against the sky, black and burnt, a jagged snarl struck through the centre of the trunk. And there They were, the two of them, one silhouetted against the bruised sky, the other barely visible against the tree bark. One. Two. The only definite we were ever able to give. I opened my eyes again, ready to scream, ready to call on the God my parents took me to church to visit, but they did not move. 

‘The fuck?’ whispered my friend, sounding marginally less shaken. 

They were the colour of an oil slick, simultaneously black but seething with rainbow. They moved the way origami does, occupying the space they already inhabited over and over and fucking over, folding it rather than existing within it. Something was writhing in their centre, tendrils opening and closing like a fist over something else that might have been a mouth, and there was a strange, high-pitched sound, the soft chink of a moth hitting a bulb. Afterwards, I wondered if it was the sound of screaming. 


My friend was standing now, slick with mud and rain and starlight, the child of thunder, and as alien as could be. Silently they walked in an awkward, hunched position and picked up a thick, knobbly stick and then searched for another, passing it to me. We did not need to pretend these were guns. These were vicious enough without imagination.  

They stood in front of us, ripping and sewing space, opening and closing like a fist. They were so out of place, so wrong to look at, that my eyes were only half-focused and I was shaking, sick to my stomach.  

‘We have to defend the planet.’ 

The American drawl was back, born of false bravado and sheer, gut-wrenching terror, and my friend held their stick aloft as if trying to channel the lightning. Children are all too ready to believe in the danger of things that appear suddenly from the dark, so I did not question this. Every fairy-tale has a lighthouse warning buried within: There are so many things waiting to dash you against the rocks. Now. Now you are at the place of oblivion. One of them suddenly released an eerie, grating wail that was felt with a skull-thumping pain more than heard, and that was all it took. Suddenly, we were ready to ride. 

We went for the one on the left, the one that stood most brightly against the sky. Where we struck it, screaming fuck you and go to hell you son of a bitch whore you, it twisted like layers of coloured tissue paper, occasionally releasing that bone-shaking cry. Many years later I dared to wonder how we had looked to it, whether we had been too alien for it to see, all mud and flesh, all screams and savage blows, and whether the sound that made us want to pull out our teeth was a cry for mercy. Thin, wavering tendrils struck out at us, stinging across our hands and faces. Where we hit it the rainbow-black turned to grey as if we really had become lightning and all we touched was turned to ash. 

When it was simply mush against the ground something slipped out from the mulch with a liquid shine. We stared at it for a long moment and, although I could not be certain what it was, bile rose in my mouth. The glimmering disc was just a little too familiar. The eye stared up at the sky, reflecting the drifting moon, as it dissolved into grey flakes. I dragged a hand backwards across my mouth and scrubbed violently at my lips. My throat was clogged with the taste of copper. 

‘Wh-what about the other one?’ I stuttered. 

But when I turned to my friend they were crying, shimmering with the strange night-dark rainbow that had spewed from the creature, leaning heavily on their stick. The other one had fallen to the ground, if fallen was the right word for the way it had jammed space open, and was making the sound of a thousand flies having their wings fried. It was already covered in a veneer of mossy grey and, somehow, we knew it was dying without a single blow. Perhaps they couldn’t breathe our air. Perhaps the lightning had allowed two worlds to collide and they had been ripped, blindly, from wherever they had been before, the strange tree a conduit. Perhaps it was dying of grief. We would never know. 

We crouched cautiously and watched the creature shuddering, turning to ash as the sky cursed at the ground. It clicked more and more quietly, tendrils unfolding and waving around in the air. Eventually one tendril shuddered, or slipped, or fell open, revealing a dark eye which rotated wetly in our direction. There was a reverberation suddenly deep within my head, a noiseless sound, as if it was speaking words we could not hear. The meaning seemed to slip across, or maybe we completely made it up, but I could have sworn it said to me: boy and my friend swore they heard: girl. An odd distinction. A poor, garbled translation of something we probably misunderstood entirely. But perhaps it was trying to say: I recognise that you are children, that you are scared, and I forgive you. Sometimes, I even like to believe it. 

On impulse I ran across to the rain-slick bank and pulled up tufts of wild garlic, the flowers tiny and only faintly white, closed in defiance of the night. I brought it back and held it out in front of the creature without knowing why, perhaps trying to show the tiniest piece of fragility in our violent, thunder-stricken world. That must have been the last thing it saw before it died, as the eye slipped wetly to the ground. The flower of an alien world. 

We spent most of adulthood silently convincing ourselves that They had just been imagination run wild, fuelled by vicious lightning, but in old age we could no longer believe this lie. Children and the elderly accept the reality that adults deny. So that is why I am not surprised when they turn to me, with their uncomfortably blue and beautiful eyes, after seventy years of silence and ask: ‘What do you think They were, exactly?’ as they lean on the rail of our porch, blowing smoke up into a sky that is gathering clouds like lost sheep. 

There is no need to ask what they are referring to. I know exactly what they mean, instantly, as if I have been waiting for the question all my life. What were They? Those strange things that were just enough in phase to be difficult to look at, as blue as they were orange and no colour we could recognise, with all those shimmering appendages, twisting like plant stems searching for the sun. I give the only answer that can be given, the worst answer in the world. 

‘I don’t know.’

‘But where did They come from?’ they insist, ‘what was the point?’

‘Do you know where you come from?’ I counter. ‘In eighty-two years, have you ever come across anything remotely resembling a point?’ 

They snort with laughter. ‘Don’t spend too much time yelling at the sky and asking why God, why bloody why, you mean?’ They run a hand through their short, grey hair the colour of an English sky, mussing it so it stands up in random, electric spikes. 

‘There was something that always bothered me more,’ I say slowly. 

I walk forward and lean against the porch rail next to them, wondering how long it’s going to be before the rain starts striking the ground. I stare down at my hands where they clutch the rail, tracing my eyes over the blue, knotted veins.  

‘Why did we treat them so differently when they were exactly the same?’ I murmur. 

I see my hands clenched around a stick, beating bright and oily rainbows out of the first creature; I see my hands clenched around a bunch of ragged flowers, holding them up to the eye of the second. One moment visible, the next concealed, the image opening and closing like a fist. I suddenly remember the echo of a non-voice: boy, and to my partner: girl. The horizon flashes. I start counting. 

They look at me then, raising an eyebrow, all long limbs and creased skin, and those eyes like a chip of struck flint, those savage, shining eyes that I had fallen in love with so long before. They take a long drag of their cigarette, and blow smoke out across the misty lawn.

‘Sometimes that just happens,’ they say at last, and shrug. 

The growl of thunder finally reaches us. Now. Now you are at the place of oblivion. 

Amy Wolstenholme is a biochemistry PhD student at Cambridge, where she researches some of the amazing intricacies of DNA replication. In her free time she loves to write poetry and short stories, and has been previously published in Visual Verse, Oxford Poetry and on the Young Poets Network. Her other hobbies include hiking, drinking tea and tie-dyeing her lab coat different colours.

image by Florian Olivo (via unsplash)

A Spectral Sigh—Amanda Crum

Lizzie buried her best friend on a chilly October day, the kind that ushers in a cold storm and turns the sky a deep watercolor blue. Pregnant clouds hung low over the fields, threatening those who stood on the hillside—dressed in Sunday best—with their fecundity. Lizzie clutched her bag tightly, grateful to have something to tether her to the world. She could barely feel her hands inside the gloves she wore. 

“And now, from Revelation 14:13, a few words of comfort as we lay Tabitha to rest,” Reverend Townsend intoned. “‘And I heard a voice from Heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Blessed indeed,’ says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.’”

He paused here for dramatic effect; it was a tactic he used during sermons when he felt the congregation slipping. The sudden silence jolted them into guilty attention. “We say goodbye to Tabitha knowing how much she did for our community and how beloved she was in all her 40 years. If you would like to leave a flower with her, you may do so now.”

The group separated from around Lizzie and reformed shoulder-to-shoulder at the grave, a murmuration of mourners with single roses in hand. One by one, they dropped the blooms onto Tab’s coffin; Lizzie could hear crumbling dirt pattering on the wood. A sudden gust of wind swooped across the hillside, waking the trees in a rush and flipping their leaves up to expose pale underbellies. To Lizzie, it sounded like a spectral sigh, an expression of exasperation on a different plane. It sounded like Tab.

Back home, the woodstove was nearly empty and the sky bloomed like India ink across linen. The storm was still threatening from its perch, darkening the day so deeply that Lizzie was jolted when she heard the clock strike 4 p.m. Her sorrow was a fist-sized knot in her abdomen, a hard and cancerous thing with teeth, and the day had drawn out like a blade because of it. She sat at the kitchen table, tracing rings and scars with her fingers, and didn’t look up when Steven came in laden with a cord of wood.

“Startin’ to feel more like winter than autumn out there,” he huffed. “Gonna have to cut more wood tomorrow.”

He was whistling past the graveyard, and she ignored it. “Maybe we should leave. Take the train into Tennessee and visit for a while.”

Steven had begun loading the stove; now he paused, kneeling, without looking at her. “Why would we do that?”

“Because I can’t stop thinking about her. The way she looked.”

Lizzie rubbed her hands together. She wasn’t that cold anymore, but the blue light of the day made her wish she had a hot cup of tea.

Steven placed the last piece of wood inside the stove and closed the door softly. “It’s going to be bad for a little while. You got to put that out of your head. Things’re hard enough without all that.”

He stood near and touched her cheek softly. She had always marveled at his hands; not the hands of a farmer at all, but those of a sleek magician who had traveled with the Ringling Brothers show in his younger days. 

“Push it away,” he said. “Tomorrow we’ll take the Hudson into Greenville and have a nice dinner.”

“You’re leaving?”

“Have to. It won’t look right otherwise.”

She pressed her face against his palm and nodded, knowing she wouldn’t be able to keep the tears out of her voice if she said anything else. When he’d closed the backdoor behind him, she stood at the kitchen sink and watched him walk through the gate, past the lavender wavering softly in a gathering wind. She stayed until she saw his porchlight come on, and then she poured three fingers of whiskey into a coffee mug and let it carry her into sleep. 

She dreamed of Tabitha. They’d met in grade school, Tab the tomboy with auburn braids and Lizzie the one who dreamed of being a movie star, her flaxen hair a beacon for attention. They were opposites in every way but quickly grew to love each other as sisters, with Tab fighting her way through the bullies who thought Lizzie was putting on airs. It got especially bad in the 9th grade, when she began to bloom and every boy in the county wanted her attention. Tab didn’t feel jealousy like the other girls. Instead, she shook her head at Lizzie as she recounted another date and scowled magnificently, unable to grasp why her friend would want to waste so much time with boys.

It was this version of Tab she dreamed about, the sullen girl who didn’t understand her own beauty. They sat together beneath their favorite tree, the town spread below them in the bowl of the holler. The two of them wore blue dresses of different shades, their bobbed hair glinting spun gold and bonfire sparks into the dusk. 

“Don’t you want to go to school? Travel? Get out of this damn town?” Tab was asking.

“I’m gonna do all those things, but I need to save some money if I ever want to get to Hollywood,” Lizzie said. “That part can’t wait. My looks won’t last forever, you know. Those directors aren’t going to cast a 40-year old woman as their star.” Ain’t had been carefully rendered to aren’t with much practice.

“It ain’t all about your looks. It ain’t all about what men want you to be. Christ, Lizzie, you’re the smartest girl I know!” She was high-tempered, her cheeks flushing just below those dark eyes that saw everything. She leaned back on her elbows and plucked a strand of tall grass, split it, and put it to her lips, where it made a sorrowful sound like a train whistle when she blew. “All I know is, I won’t ever let some man tell me what I can do.”

Lizzie jerked awake, into the silver gloom of dawn. Into the strong scent of freshly cut roses.

The women in town often made the trek up the hill to see Lizzie when they needed something that was out of their reach: true love, a child, money. Sometimes what they wanted was to be rid of something. She had learned at her mother’s elbow from the time she was very young, watching as she mixed small but complicated batches of desire for the women of Pine Hollow. A homemade wind chime made of colorful glass bottles hung from the eaves of their front porch, calling them forth, and her mother always knew exactly what they needed. 

Lizzie looked over her collection of herbs and tinctures, separated and organized by color. She never labeled anything; she knew from the feel and smell what they were. One small blue bottle was nearly empty. She picked it up and held it to the light, remembering. It seemed to her that blue was the color of memory.

A knock on the door stirred her and she set the worktable to rights, carefully replacing the blue bottle amongst the others. It was Jocelyn Baker, who had once sought Lizzie’s help to conceive a child. Five consecutive miscarriages had driven her nearly out of her mind; her son, a healthy towheaded boy who sometimes helped Steven with field work, was now 12. 

“Lizzie,” she said as she October breeze swept her in. She wore a dress the color of fresh cream, with tiny purple flowers printed all over. “I need to talk to you.”

“What’s the matter? Is Matthew well?”

“Oh yes, he’s doin’ fine, healthy as a horse and eating me and Jacob out of house and home.” She paused, tilting her head to look over Lizzie’s shoulder. “Is someone else here?”

Lizzie looked behind her, so powerful was Jocelyn’s gaze. Like she’d seen something. “No, I’m alone. What’s got you so shook?”

Jocelyn fiddled with the oversized buttons on her coat. “I debated whether or not I should even come. I know you’re grieving.”

Lizzie remembered seeing Jocelyn standing at Tab’s grave, dropping in a rose with the rest of the town. They hadn’t known each other well, but it was expected. Small places run on courtesy and gossip. 

“I just… I thought you should know what people are saying about you,” Jocelyn said finally. 

Lizzie felt her face lose its openness; the eyes narrowed, the jaw clenched. Her mouth was a tightrope no one could walk across. “And what’s that?”

“They say that you’re… takin’ up with a married man. It ain’t none of my business and you know I’ll always be in your debt for Matthew, but I thought you should know. Because of, you know. What you do.” She gestured toward Lizzie’s worktable, the rows of bottles and jars. “If they turn on you, it won’t be long before they start talkin’ about that. Even good people can be cruel.”

She was right, of course. Half the town knew about Lizzie’s gifts, but once the talk started they would recuse themselves from her orbit. It wouldn’t matter that she’d helped them when no one else could; she would become a prize to be held aloft by all those who couldn’t wait to pounce on someone else’s sin. Lizzie leaned against the kitchen sink, looking out the window. From this vantage point, she couldn’t see Steven’s house; the grass had grown too tall. A large crow sat on the plank fence, presiding over all.

“Still growin’,” she said hoarsely. 

“Pardon?” Jocelyn said.

“The grass. It’s the middle of October and the first frost has come and gone but that grass is still growin’. Why do you think that is?”

Jocelyn shook her head, confused. “I couldn’t say, Lizzie.”

Lizzie turned to her, saw the worry on her face, and smiled tightly. “It’s alright. Thank you for tellin’ me. The holler wouldn’t be the same without the rumor mill churning.”

Jocelyn’s mouth turned up cautiously. It was a smile that wondered why Lizzie wasn’t denying anything. “I’m so glad you aren’t upset. I thought for sure you’d run me out of here on a rail!”

“You’re a good friend,” Lizzie said. “The world needs more people like you.”

Later, after Jocelyn was gone, Lizzie walked out back, crossing her arms against the wind. The grass was knee-high and yellow, wavering down the hill toward Steven’s place. She was too far away to see anything through the windows, but she imagined he was in there, or out in the barn working on one of his wood pieces. 

Her boots were sinking into the soil. She looked down at the spongy black dirt and frowned. Swiping a finger across it brought a shudder; it was like touching rot, like feeling decay. She wiped the finger absently across the hem of her dress and examined the grass, which was dead and so dry it rattled in the wind. The sound was bones in a coffin. A warning.

“Lizzie,” the breeze sighed. “Oh, Lizzie.” 

The crow took flight, beating its wings so forcefully that Lizzie felt their wind on her face.

November brought an erasure of snow.

Lizzie normally enjoyed the cold, loved the way the fields were blanketed in white, the color of non-memory. Now it only magnified the sense of loneliness she felt and made her think of endings. 

Steven hadn’t been to visit in four days. She had wondered if perhaps he’d heard the gossip, suspected he had. He said everything was fine, but Lizzie had felt him retreating since the funeral, a slow removal of his presence that left her wondering whether their relationship had mostly lived in her body. In fact, she couldn’t remember ever feeling so out of sorts. 

Things were changing inside her home. She woke most mornings to find that the bottles on her workstation had been rearranged or even knocked over; certain rooms were broiling hot, while she could see her breath in others. She poured milk into her tea one evening to find that it had curdled, even though it was only a day old. And always, the powerful scent of roses followed her. 

When the crow perched on her fence one evening and wouldn’t leave—demanding her attention with his beady gaze—she made a sudden decision. Bundling up, she marched out the back door and shooed the dark omen away. The bird flew ten feet from her and landed in the snow, staring sullenly over its shoulder. Ignoring it, Lizzie kept walking down the hill, not caring about whether anyone saw her. 

Steven was home; she could see his shadow flitting through the lamplight like a moth. 

“Lizzie,” he greeted her. “What are you doing out in the cold?”

“I need to talk to you,” she said, looking over his shoulder. “Are you alone?”

He frowned. “Of course I’m alone.”

She searched his eyes for a moment before sliding past him, into the warmth of his living room. It felt strange, being there after so long. Steven always came to her place; it was easier for both of them. 

“What’s the matter?” he asked.

Lizzie sighed. “It just feels like you’ve forgotten me. Where have you been?”

He shook his head, looked at the floor. “I’ve been busy, that’s all. Takin’ care of things.”

“What things? Not me, not anymore.”


“I thought the whole point of all this was so we could be together. I’m goin’ crazy up there alone in that house, do you know that? I don’t want this.”

“I warned you it would be bad for a little while. Didn’t I tell you that?”

“Yeah, you warned me. But I wasn’t ready for it, for the way she looked. Her eyes saw right through me. It was horrible, and you don’t even care.” She had begun to cry despite her resolve not to.

Steven had been standing in front of the door; now he shifted his weight slightly, revealing two large suitcases. They sat benignly, offering an explanation Lizzie didn’t want.

“Oh,” she said. “You’re leaving?”

Steven held up his hands, as though she had turned a gun on him. “Just for a little while. I wanna get my head right.”

She walked slowly toward him, her anger curling up from a place deep in her body. “I can’t believe you’re doing this to me. I’ve loved you since I was nineteen. I gave up my dream of becoming an actress for you! I stayed here in this shitty town. For you.”

“I never asked you to stay,” he spat through his teeth, advancing on her. They stood inches apart, a different sort of heat gathering between them. “That was your choice.”

“But you did ask me to kill your wife,” she said softly.

He snapped his arm out and clenched the collar of her coat in one strong hand, pulling her into him. She could smell sourmash on his breath but didn’t turn away. She took courage in her fury, cradling it against her bosom like an infant.

“You wanted her gone as much as I did,” he said. “I never promised you anything, Lizzie. I’ve been stuck here the same as you. Do you think I ever wanted to be a farmer? You stay in one place long enough and it grows into your bones like cancer, it eats at your plans until you can barely remember what they were. I can travel now, the way I used to.”

Lizzie reached up and placed her hands over his, suddenly overcome with grief. The weight of her madness fell upon her and she began to wail, keening like a mother who has lost her child.

And suddenly, a knock at the door.

Lizzie quieted immediately and turned her head towards the sound, the tendons in her neck so tight they creaked. Steven turned as well, eyes wide. When it came again, it sounded less like a hand and more like a series of pecks. 

And when the wind blew the door open on its hinges and they saw what awaited them, Lizzie recalled the words of Reverend Townsend over Tab’s grave. She could almost hear them on the fragrant gusts that rolled in, redolent of roses.

“‘Blessed indeed,’ says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.’”

Amanda Crum is a writer and artist whose work can be found in publications such as The Hellebore, Barren Magazine, Eastern Iowa Review, and more. She is a Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and Indie Horror Book Award nominee; two of her collections of horror poetry, The Madness In Our Marrow and Tall Grass, made the shortlist for Bram Stoker Award nominations. Amanda currently lives in Kentucky with her husband and two children.

photo by Ameen Fahmy (via unsplash)

The Spider—Vera Hadzic

Heartbreak is a spider resting in your chest. I read an unhealthy amount of romance novels, and I know what heartbreak is supposed to feel like – a crack in your ribcage, a sharp, stabbing pain that splits your soul in two. I expect it should feel as though something inside you is broken, but I can’t feel any breakage. I feel around – my hand wanders down my sternum, probing at the place where I can feel the strongest heartbeat. It all seems to be intact. Heartbreak, it turns out, is something else entirely. It’s a spider resting inside of you – its body settled over your heart, and its long legs stretching out to poke at your ribs, your lungs, your solar plexus. The hard, dull pressure of its black body builds up knots in your cardiac tissue, so that you can feel it tugging at every breath you try to take. It’s an ache similar to anxiety, or stress – the little metal ball that makes your pulse speed before you give a speech – only this one reaches out with its eight spindly legs, and tickles you with that blunt, fuzzy feeling.

I am sitting at the kitchen table. My coffee is getting cold in front of me. I should drink it before I have to microwave it or take it cold. The spider in my chest twitches. I want to coil into a spiral like a centipede and pretend the world doesn’t spin around me. I want to drink my coffee, or check my phone. The door is open; I hear forest song from behind the house, crickets and birds and crackling branches, and I want to go outside. I don’t do any of those things. I don’t seem to be able to move.

“Oh,” I say, finally, breaking the shell of silence. My little dog, Odo, perks up his ears. I massage my breastbone, as though it’ll dislodge the spider whose legs sprawl over it.

There is a knock on the door; it’s Leslie, the mailman. Have to get up. It’s probably instinct that takes over my motor controls and propels me to my feet, drags me to the door, hooks a smile onto my face. “Hi, Leslie. Yep, that’s for me. Yes, doing well. How about you? Good to hear. Thanks so much. I’ll definitely think about it. Have a nice day.”

The mail gives me something to focus on, and it reminds my fingers how to move, how to curl and press as I slit open the envelopes. The spider shifts a little bit, gets more comfortable. We can live like this, it promises. Its words thrum their way up my nerves, as though the spider is plucking them like guitar strings. Haven’t you heard of symbiosis? This is manageable.

I have to force myself to keep moving, or else I’ll be trapped in stillness again. I’ll have to shake this off, I tell myself. This should not be a big deal for me, anyway.

Writing is out of the question. The spider’s body quivers when I think of it. It’s going to be another unproductive day, and if my editor, Jack, calls tonight, I won’t have the energy to lie to him. There will be a touch of hardened concrete in his voice when he asks me to remember my deadlines. I can already hear the acidity eating away at his consonants when he wonders why he put so much effort into securing this grant for me – the money which paid for me to live in the woods, by myself, and write. Then, he will finish with a salve, a little bit of gentleness coating his words as he tells me, again, that he believes in me. I’ve never liked when people say that. Why believe in me when I don’t believe in myself? It seems like a waste of belief. Instead of writing, I wash the dishes. I microwave my coffee. I vacuum the living room. Keep moving, I think, and the spider agrees. The phone I left on the kitchen table vibrates; the spider throbs within me when I hear it. The last message I received spawned it, after all – but it’s just my mother, asking after my garden.

It’s all right, soothes the spider when I start feeling lonely. I’ll keep you company.

Odo brushes up to my leg and rubs his ears against my pants. I imagine he can sense the spider; I’m amazed he’s not repelled. I suppose he, at least, trusts me still.

We go for a walk, Odo, the black spider, and I. Outside, a grey-misted sky settles down around us as we follow the vague paths in the forest. For all his unconditional love, Odo is delighted to bound away from me; he plots an adventurous course as he struggles over tree trunks, and nuzzles the dirt with his nose. His tiny body is quickly lost in the bushes, but wherever he goes, he makes rustling noises, and I can follow the waves of green that ripple through the undergrowth. I focus on smelling the moist, earthy odour of an atmosphere heavy with expected rain.

Eventually, Odo returns to me. By now, he has marked the most promising tree trunks as his own, and ordinarily, I would circle back home and get back to business. But I know that there will be no writing today, and the spider in my chest eggs me on, so I carry us further into the forest, where the slant of muted sunlight is less familiar to me, and the mossy bumps on birches and eldritch whorls on stones are not ones I have seen before.

I perch myself on a rock, inspect the mud that has caked the soles of my sneakers, and pet Odo’s little head as he whines at my knee. I believe he feels sorry for me, given that I have a spider in my chest cavity. I coo at Odo to make him feel a little less bad. One of the spider’s legs taps at my rib; the vibration scuttles up my skeleton and makes me shiver.

“Do you want to go home?” I ask Odo.

No, complains the spider. Let’s stay here. It’s old, and there’s no one to bother us.

A flash of fury buzzes through me. You’re a guest in my body, I scold it angrily. You don’t get to decide what I do. You’re not part of who I am.

We head back to the house, and the spider sits in sullen silence.

Jack doesn’t call. I fill my afternoon with odd jobs I have neglected, and I eat dinner in front of the TV, ignoring the twinges that the spider sends from inside of me. I only think of it when I debate whether I should tell my mother about what has happened. I wouldn’t mention the spider, of course – I would just share my bad news.

I dismiss the idea quickly. It arose from a childlike instinct to seek comfort in motherly love, but I know my mother. She would never understand how news like this could induce a spider to move in. In fact, she wouldn’t understand why I was unhappy. Weddings are happy occasions, she would insist. You are too sensitive.

When it’s almost ten o’clock at night, and Jack has still not called, I pronounce myself safe. It’s a smidge of goodness that I savour, melting on my tongue as I shuffle my way to bed. I’ve never slept with a spider in my chest before, and Odo seems skeptical as he adopts his usual croissant-shaped position at my side. Behave yourself, I warn the spider. It still seems unwilling to talk after my harsh words in the woods.

When I wake up the next morning, I discover two problems. The first I detect immediately, as it woke me up: Jack is calling. I pick up my phone.

“Hi, Manon. I hope I didn’t wake you. Listen, your deadline’s coming up.” He launches into his usual monologue, taking me up and down the ridges and dips of his appraisal of my work and my situation. Eventually, I can feel us trudging up to a climax, a peak where he expects me to speak; my words will be the bridge to the next hill, the next idea. As we approach, and I prepare to give a response, I find my second problem.

“Mm,” I try. “Mmmm.”

“Sorry? What’s that? This is you, Manon, right?”

I feel more annoyed than appalled. I seem to be unable to make much of a sound; vibrations travel up from my voice box, but it’s difficult to open my mouth. It’s as though it’s been glued shut. The more I think about it, the more my entire throat feels stuffed – clogged with something that feels like tufts of Kleenex, or cotton candy.

Somehow, I survive the phone call with Jack without being able to donate many sounds apart from muffled tones. He gathers that he just woke me up and promises to call later. Before he hangs up, he hauls me along for another monologue, just as familiar as the last one.

When I am freed, I experiment with my mouth. I feel something snap as I strain to open it as wide as possible – not a brittle snap, but the squishy, squelchy feel of strings of chewing gum being pulled apart. Whatever is blocking my throat is soft and sticky. I have a pretty good guess as to what it is. I shove my finger between my teeth and manage to snag some of it in the crook of my finger. I pull it out for a closer inspection; it’s wet from my saliva, but I rub it across my fingers and peer at it.

As I thought, I conclude. Spiderweb. I direct a reproachful thought to the spider in my chest.

I can’t help it, the spider says defensively. I didn’t think you’d mind.

I make it to the bathroom around eleven o’clock that morning. I should probably have gotten up earlier, but somehow I convinced myself to lie back down, close my eyes, and lose myself in the twisting tunnels of my duvet, surrounded by softness, warmth, and the smell of clean linen sheets. I turn on the lights in the bathroom despite the sunlight streaming in through the window; I stretch my mouth open and angle it toward the mirror, trying to see down into the depths of my throat. The back of my mouth resembles a clump of cloud; the strands of spiderweb crisscross in front of each other so that it all looks like a white fuzz.

I scoop out as much of the webs as I can with my toothbrush, but my gag reflex proves troublesome. I try to flush it out with water, too, but the spider’s web is resilient, and while I feel the tapestry in my throat loosen, there’s no hope of getting it all out. The spider in my chest squirms through my ministrations.

After giving up, I figure I’ll have to go through the day with a cobwebbed throat. A small, golden wind has picked up in the meantime, and I accompany Odo on a walk. I skip breakfast; having spiderwebs in my throat has gnawed away at my appetite. This time, I don’t steer us into the forest. Instead, we follow the dirt track that spears its way through the woodland to the village. For half a second, I consider trekking all the way in and stopping by the clinic. But I don’t feel a doctor will be much help. As soon as I get over the heartbreak, the spider will leave of its own accord.

Go into the trees, the spider sings as I walk. Let’s go into the forest.

I am adamant. I am still irritated about the cobwebs, and am loath to give the spider in my chest anything to be happy about. I focus on the ruts in the road formed by tire-tracks, and I listen to looping threads of cricket-song and bird-chirp. The spider sulks in my chest; I can feel its legs digging deeper into my muscles and my bones. Something flutters in the crevices of my mind, and some part of me longs to step off the road, to feel leaf-carpet underfoot and find all the oldest shadows between the trees. It’s the spider’s doing, and it makes me uneasy. With sweaty palms, I spin around and we return to the house.

There’s not much good waiting for me there. As I pull my phone from my pocket, the screen lights up with a missed call: it’s from Claire. The spider in my chest shivers and I feel its legs twitch. It’s not unexpected that she would check in on me. When she told me yesterday that she was engaged, I said nothing to her; the phone screen faded to black, message read but unanswered. I sat like a slug, squatting on my own silent slime. I let my coffee get cold and then I washed the dishes.

I don’t know how to explain my silence. I count it a blessing that I can’t talk. I will write to her, I decide, and tell her I’m sick, with a headache, a fever, and a sore throat. I will promise to talk to her more later. And I will tack on a congratulations at the end to prove that I read her message.

I tell myself I’ll do it as soon as I wash my hands. Instead, I bustle through my garden, and take special care to water my pathetic tomatoes. When I make it back inside, the phone is ringing. I pick up out of anxiety; it’s Claire. I curse myself. The spider’s legs are trembling, sending tremors up my blood vessels. My head is pounding already and she hasn’t spoken a word.

“Manon? Is it you? I didn’t hear anything from you yesterday. Are you okay?”

I attempt to make a sound, delivering a bout of incoherent mumbling.

“Sorry? I can’t hear what you’re saying.”

I manage to croak out a syllable – “sore” comes out, mangled by the silk nets in my throat.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Are you sick? I’m so sorry.”

“Mmm,” I say, relieved. In a few moments I will hang up and pretend the connection cut out. The spider is entrenched deep over my heart, and the pressure builds the longer I stay on the line. Claire’s voice is cool and temperate as always, and it sends me back to my best memories, the ones that glow the brightest. She is saying something, but I lose track of the words; I let myself catch on the sounds, the way they glide together, the glissando of her speech. Behind it, I can hear a meshwork of other noises: someone else’s laughter, the screech of wind, and the slow crash of waves. This is her life, I think to myself as I close my eyes. This is where she belongs.

“Manon, are you hearing me?”

Where do I belong?

“Mmm.” I’m suddenly sure that the spider in my chest is growing. Its weight is almost unbearable now, crushing my heart beneath its fat body; and its legs lengthen, too, becoming dark, knobbly swords curving around my side. I am afraid that my ribcage will explode; or that a leg will pop one of my lungs, or that my heart will be pulped to a sludgy mess of blood and tissue. Hang up, I tell myself. Hang up.

“I really hope you can come to the wedding,” Claire is telling me. “I know we’re far away, ‘lost on the Scottish moor’ as you once wrote, and that you hate leaving your little town. But I would love for you to meet Oliver. And after all – you’re my best friend. You have to be there to pledge me away!”


“Look, Oliver wants to meet you, too – he’s dying to know who you really are, he says. He even offered to pay for your ticket – I told him no way, she’s a published author, she earns enough – ”


“I keep forgetting you’re sick. Listen, I’ll go now, please take care of yourself. And write back to me soon about the wedding. Love you, Manon!”

The line goes dead. My throat is thick with spiderwebs and the want to cry.

Let’s go into the forest, whispers the spider in my chest.

No, I hiss back. No, there’s nothing for me in the forest.

Let’s go into the forest, begs the spider in my chest.

And soon I am running. I have no shoes, I have no coat; copper sunlight bathes my bare arms and crowns me in amber. Odo yelps and scurries after me. I tear through my garden, and I see that the trees are reaching out with their bony fingers. The forest invaginates me; it swallows me whole, and folds around me. Odo barks at my heels. The spider in my chest is elated. Its legs tickle my ribs with excitement.

I run until the patches of sky visible through the canopy are pomegranate-red. Somewhere along the way, Odo and I became separated. It hurts me to lose him but I have to hope he will find me again. There’s a rational part of my mind that shushes the storm in my head: it tells me I’m not in my right mind, but I keep going.

I crumple over a snowy-white boulder carpeted in lichen. My eyes drift over the things around me; I see symbols, pictures written into white birch-bark, secrets left behind by moss lettering and fairy-feet. Patterns are etched into the soil beneath me; worn roots curl into spirals, and mushrooms, bearded with mold, make ancient villages in the shadow of the trees. It is darkening and my thoughts are clear of Claire’s voice. I think the spider has stopped growing, for now. It is unmoving, serene with pleasure. I fall asleep with the rock as my pillow.

My dreams are harvested from my memories. They make me antsy and show me things that are no longer real. Claire and I are best friends, they claim; we trust each other more than anything, they say. Swear it, I challenge them, but they make no reply. They show me the faces of my other friends, the girls who I entrusted with gossamer dreams, who drifted away one by one. I feel Claire’s shoulder blades jutting against my hands as I hug her goodbye at the airport. She is going to Scotland to study. She is going to come back, she vows. Everything will be as it always was.

I awake under the eye of the stars. Get moving, counsels the spider. They are coming to find

My throat feels stuffed again. I send a tentative finger into my mouth – while I slept, the spider wove more webs. My breath comes out hot and droopy against my teeth. My esophagus swelters from the weight of the spiderwebs. I am sure they have doubled in number since I fell asleep. When I lurch to my feet, my stomach is unsettled. I wonder if it’s because I didn’t eat anything.

They are coming for you, the spider chants. We have to get moving.

That’s when I hear the barking. It’s Odo; and when I look behind me, I see the white sway of a flashlight. Odo has brought Leslie, the mailman, to search for me. “Manon! Where are you?”

The spider is right. I can’t let them find me. I entertained the thought of going to the doctor earlier today, but now I see that it is unthinkable. I imagine how my X-ray would look. They would see my body, all blue and wispy, and then right over my heart, a hulking bulb with eight legs and countless eyes. Nobody would ever trust me again; I would be the crazy writer who let a spider live in her chest. I have to overcome my heartbreak on my own, and then the spider will leave me.

I lance into the trees. My feet are bloody and cracked from sprinting over fallen twigs, and my socks are soaked. At the moment, though, my greatest discomfort comes from my stomach. It gurgles and wrings itself about; white-hot flares travel up to my brain, and my shoulders tremble with chills.

I check over my shoulder; the flashlight has vanished, for now. I lean against a tree, feel the rough bite of the bark scratch against my neck. I drop my hand to my middle. I feel something – a lump stretching at the walls of my stomach. My fingers probe it gently. It’s spongy, and it’s not smooth, but ribbed with bumps. I can hear it sloshing in my digestive fluids.

It’s an egg sac, I realize. Those are your eggs.

The spider gives me no reply. Its body is filled with an electrical thrill. It is listening to some song in the forest that I cannot hear.

I should be horrified that the spider laid its eggs inside of me. The egg sac protrudes against my hand, and I wonder what it would look like in the X-ray. I also wonder what I will do when they hatch. I sit down and heave my hand against my chest, where the spider pushes against my heart.

When I was first published, all of my friends wrote to me, even the ones that had already gone – moved, gotten married, fallen out of contact. They told me they were proud and that they had always believed in me. Claire was the most ecstatic: she saw the success of my first novel as proof that I could accomplish anything. She almost made me buy into the idea that the world was mine for the taking. She winked at me and told me she looked forward to reading my next book. There was no way for either of us to know, then, that there would not be another book. That I wouldn’t be able to move on. That I couldn’t live beyond the past.

The night wind cuts into me. Run, the spider urges. I think it’s worried for its eggs. The pangs of pain in my stomach are intolerable; I cannot run. But I do haul myself to my feet, and I limp on, my hand brushing against branches. The sharpest twigs lacerate my palm, slicing it open, but it feels good when warm blood pours over the welts.

Run! The spider is shrieking at me. Its legs patter restlessly; I know that it is jittery. But I feel oddly calm. There is the music of the forest at night to wrap around me as I walk, to settle over my shoulders like a mantle, and the crickets hop alongside my steps.

What will you do, the spider screams from inside my chest, if they find you? You will never be normal again. They will cast you out! You will lose all that you are.

If my throat was not plugged with spiderweb, I would use my voice and speak aloud so that the forest could know this, too. All I am is the past.

Claire is never coming back to me. She will get married in Scotland and she will never be mine again. And if she isn’t mine, then I cannot be hers. If I am not hers, if I am not theirs, what is there left for me to be?

The forest closes in around me, embracing me in a blanket of silver and black. I can almost fool myself into thinking I belong here. I can no longer write. I have no one left to trust. What better place for me than floating in this ocean of grass and sky, of tree and mud?

We have to go! The spider writhes inside me and leaves tangles of agony in my chest.

My life has changed, but I haven’t, I tell the spider. I have already lost all that I was.

The forest draws me in closer; I feel its ancient shadows snake over my arms, curve around my ankles like magic bracelets.

Deeper, deeper, pleads the spider. Let’s go faster.

The forest is changing me; and why not, I reflect, let it choose who I should be? The spider is fearful, but it presses me to go on. With each step, Odo and Leslie tumble further behind, and I shed a follicle of my skin, becoming something else, something other than whatever I thought I could be.

I wasn’t ready for metamorphosis when things changed for me, I confess to the spider. I couldn’t evolve the way Claire did. But like this, I don’t need to think about changing. I can just let it happen.

Keep going, the spider whines. Its legs constrict my chest with their girth. Keep going.

I am about to, but something makes me stop. The spider practically deflates in disappointment. It twitters furious sounds of concern, and demands what’s wrong. I see someone in front of me, although that little rational part of my brain is perfectly aware that there is no one really there. My mind has conjured a figure, a human figure with two arms, two legs, and a face.

At first, I think I know who it will be: this is Claire, come back to claim my identity. She comes closer, though, and I waver. It is not Claire. There is a different feel around her, a texture that I know well but struggle to place.

Who is it? The spider swells with anger in my chest.

It’s Manon, I say. It’s me.

A Manon I had never become. A Manon rooted in the past – but beyond it.

She evaporates, dissolving like sand in the wind when I reach out and touch her. That’s all right, I reason; I created her anyhow. She is me but changed. Not changed by the forest, but by my own self. Changed by the river of thought that flows within my very soul, changed as I ride the waves of time into my future. Odo’s howls reach my ear, and I cannot think of a reason to take another step. The forest crunches together; it huddles into itself, recoils from me not in distaste, but in understanding. I am not its creature.

I bend down and lie on my back. Stars wheel overhead like silver carousels. The wind sings to me – will it sing me to sleep?

Before it has a chance, there is a searing, tearing wail. It is the spider in my chest; it has become engorged, and for the first time I can see the mound of its body straining against my breast, a bulge beneath my white tee-shirt. There is no room for fear left in me. The spider is fiery with rage; its legs spasm, drumming erratically against my bones, so that I can feel the vibrations thudding all along my spine. That rational part of me knows what is about to happen, and I know there is nothing I can do to stop it.

The spider bursts out of my chest in a fountain of blood and cartilage. It has ripped itself from my body – flaps of my skin dangle uselessly from the gaping hole, and a spray of blood showers my face. Even the rational part of my brain cannot rationalize the pain – having your chest turned into a volcano, your own blood scalding like lava is unfathomable, so I almost don’t feel it.

The spider’s enormous black body spurts from the hole, its beady eyes glossed over with my blood, clawing its way out with its long, nimble legs. It doesn’t spare a moment to say goodbye; it lunges off of me, and skitters away into the darkness. After all, I have rejected it. I chose my own change.

The next thing I feel is a second eruption, a smaller one, deep in the rugae of my stomach. The egg sac has popped; the eggs have hatched. I can feel them now, a legion of tiny, eight-legged dots, scrambling in my stomach. Some of the spiders are dissolved by my stomach acids and digestive enzymes; I feel sorry for them when I hear their high-pitched, dying squeals.

But others succeed in fighting their way through my cardiac sphincter, and they clamber their way out of the stomach and up my esophagus. They ravage their way up to my throat and I turn onto my front so that they can cascade out of my mouth, a whole army of glistening baby spiders, taking with them all the shreds of their mother’s spidersilk. When the last of them has finally dropped from my lips, I fall onto my back, and feel my blood leak into my shirt.

“Finally,” I say, now that my throat has cleared, “it’s just me again.”

Odo trots up and buries his head in my hair, and there is Leslie, his flashlight falling on the gaping hole in my chest where the spider once nestled. Either Odo or Leslie tells me not to worry, that someone is on their way to help. Privately, both Odo and Leslie doubt I will live, but they’re wrong. I’ll make it. Moonlight pours into my chest, spilling rivers of pearly white over my heart. It’s lucky, I think, that my heart isn’t broken.

Vera Hadzic is a writer from Ottawa, Ontario, studying English literature at the University of Ottawa. In the past, her poetry has been published in online publications and in youth anthologies. Currently, she is expanding her academic and artistic interests, and exploring short fiction, speculative fiction, and poetry.

photo by Peter Oslanec (via unsplash)

Stitches—Samuel Best

It has been one week since the surgery and my stomach still feels taught and tender; the skin around my abdomen yellowed with bruising, a meaty red line bisecting me where my appendix used to be. If I look closely I can make out the white threads of stitching keeping my insides inside. If I think about it enough I can feel that there is something different beyond the scar now.

It had started as a stomach ache. Maybe I had eaten some bad food, I had thought, and I passed it off as the noodles I had eaten the day before. But later that night there was a shift. The squirming pain moved down and round, and I lay in my bed sweating and shaking and Googling symptoms. I went to hospital and they waved me through like they were expecting me. It happens all the time, I was told. I was lucky I came in when I did. Some people were past saving by the time they thought to seek help. In the olden days that stomach ache was a death sentence.

They processed me smoothly and before I knew it I had a drip in my arm and a little cup of pills to stop me feeling the burning inside my body. I feel like I’m digesting myself, I told the nurse. He told me he’d actually had a patient like that once. Her stomach eating itself. Her cheeks sunken with irony. Her skeleton starting to shine through her skin. They talked me though the operation and asked me to sign a form I was too blurry to read properly. Then they wheeled me in and I stared at the ceiling tiles as the world around me whirled into nothingness.

When I woke up I felt like I had been in a car accident. My whole body ached through the painkillers. The doctor came to the foot of my bed and told me that the operation was a success, that he’d never seen an appendix so inflamed, that I should thank my stars I came in when I did. He made a joke about something medical I didn’t quite get and left. I was sent home the next morning.

Since then I’ve started each morning the same way. I unfold myself from my bed like a paper crane, hoping the delicate wound won’t split me in half as I rise, and go through to the bathroom. The light above the mirror shows everything as it is and I turn back and forth, watching my skin try to knit itself back together. Some days the redness seems to blaze with anger, some days the surrounding skin seems like it’s made of wax or clay. Then I shower with a plastic bag taped to my stomach and dress in loose-fitting clothes for another day of pills and box-set TV shows.

They’d given me a few leaflets to take home with me but there’s one in particular I keep coming back to. It talks a lot about post-op care but there’s one little paragraph which keeps catching my eye. It talks about how many people feel a strange sensation inside their bodies after surgery. A numbness, some people reported, or a swelling sensation. Some people felt as if their innards had been entirely rearranged; their hearts beating too far to the right, their lungs inflating too close to their pelvis. I always think about this when I stand in front of the mirror.

There are some mornings where I think I can still feel my appendix, even though I had never felt it before when it was actually in there. There are mornings where I feel a bubbling, squirming sensation; as if an eel were wriggling its way through my body. There are mornings where I swear I can feel the rubber touch of the doctor’s fingers inside my abdomen. There is a number to call on the leaflet but I have never bothered with it yet. Most time I just remind myself that it is a common side-effect of surgery, that lots of people feel this way, and then I go back to the couch to take my next antibiotic.

This morning is no different. The thoughts come to me like usual. The certainty that there is something different at my core. Something moved or moving. Something still shifting inside me. I tell myself it’s nothing. It’s nothing. I look at my scar and the puckering of stitches they said would slowly dissolve as I heal. I look at the ripple of bruising around it. I imagine how much force, how much trauma, my body endured while I was unconscious. I think about how some memories are memories, living inside your head, while some are injuries, scarred into your flesh. And then I see it.

The skin above my scar paling slightly, like I’m rolling it through my fingers, squeezing out the blood. It’s a small area, no bigger than my hand, perhaps. I fix my eyes on it as my mouth turns clammy and tart. Slowly, I push my fingers into the pale area. It feels swollen and puffy and cold. I press my skin harder and the paleness gives way to pinkness again, and the swelling goes down. Except it doesn’t disappear. It moves. Underneath my scar now, by my hip, my skin grows swollen and pallid. A visible lump pushes out like a hernia.

My mind whirrs with thoughts. I remember reading about a patient who sued the hospital after a surgeon stitched her up leaving a glove inside her. Another who’d been found with a surgical tool left behind. I taste vomit and sweat pools on my skin. I press and press and each time the lump moves. It pushes at the scar next and I nearly faint as the raw skin stretches and seeps. There is a moment where I think I can see something behind the stitching, where the skin has split open again. Something pale and pulsing; something coiled and raw.

But when I push my fingers down I can’t see it anymore and the swelling moves to a different part of my skin again. I remind myself that thoughts like this are a common side-effect after surgery, that lots of people think that they see or feel strange things like this. I tell myself that all of this will heal in time. I turn the shower on and tape the water-proof bag around my abdomen, the surging mass in my stomach disappearing under glossy black plastic. The hot water stings my skin and I wash carefully while my hospital leaflet lies by the sink. It curls and coils in the condensation as I tell myself again that all of this will heal in time.

Samuel Best‘s short fiction has been published in magazines in Britain, North America, and Scandinavia. His début novel ‘Shop Front’ has been described as ‘A howl and a sigh from Generation Austerity’ and he founded the literary magazines Octavius and Aloe. You can find him on social media @storiesbysamuel.   

photo by Günter / moritz320 (via pixabay)

Little Man—Charlotte Turnbull

It was his mother who wanted to keep the little man. At eleven-years-old Charlie still trusted her decisions, on the whole, but he didn’t think it would make a good pet. The boy didn’t want it in the house – he didn’t like the way it looked at her.

The thing was unconscious when Alice wrapped it in her waterproof jacket. She stroked its tiny arms to the sides of its body and bound it tight in breathable plastic. She barely felt the inflation of its tissue-thin lungs. One hand braced against the other so as not to crush it accidentally, she rushed up the path to the house – trying to keep its passage steady.

‘Find the bucket,’ she shouted to Charlie.

The little fellow had come around, easing his chin this way, then that, releasing his long beard where it had caught between her fingers. Huge black eyes, in a head the size of her thumb, blinked slowly then fixed upon her.

Theirs was a small cottage in the crook of the moor’s arm, garden brittle with granite and gorse. It had been Charlie’s only home, but there was a shy echo between them once his father had removed his belongings. Alice even found herself worrying that their elderly cat might die, leaving only the two of them.

On the last day of the holidays, Charlie started when his mother opened his bedroom door without knocking. She walked in, drew breath to speak, and paused.

‘What’s that?’ She sniffed.

‘What’s what?’ Charlie squawked unexpectedly, his voice breaking for the first time and amplified by the quiet. Charlie’s hands went straight to his own throat, to throttle the falsetto. Alice flinched, then laughed too lightly, unsettling herself with the silly idea that her son was possessed – that she was cohabiting with a new, unwanted housemate.

She threw up a window and suggested the walk.

Even in heavy rain Charlie and Alice preferred to be outside, their tread softened by thick needle mulch. Among the mossy boles that day the only cry was that of the buzzard. They shuffled home across a slippery welt of black stones over the river, and brushed through ferns to walk by the low granite stone rows that just about constituted a site of antiquity on a map. On walks with both parents, Charlie had always followed his mother, passing the shorter, sharp-ended standing stones, his father on the other side, passing along the taller ones. Now, feeling sullen and resentful, Charlie passed along his father’s old route. The cottage flashed at him through the pillars, like it was trying to keep him in sight, when he felt a pain in his foot and stopped. He braced himself on one of the slabs to upend his boot. A stone fell out and hit the creature, who would otherwise be easily mistaken for leaf mould, on the crown of his head.

‘Mummy!’ Alice ran back, alarmed by the sudden height to Charlie’s voice.

The pisky rubbed its head, looked balefully up at them, then collapsed unconscious.

‘Thank goodness you didn’t hurt him.’ Alice said.

It was naked but for the long beard between its legs. Slumped against the side, the pisky did not even glance at Charlie when he and his mother loomed, as giants, at the rim of the bucket on the kitchen table. It was inert, enthralled by his mother, making no effort to scale its smooth plastic walls.

‘Isn’t he sweet?’ Alice cooed. Its mouth curled up at her tone. The gaunt face; grassy dun-coloured hair, thin on top; stained beard and marble of a belly – Charlie wondered what his mother saw. Its lips peeled back to a mouthful of sharp black seeds. Alice clapped her hands delighted, and Charlie felt sick.

Instead of towelling his hair dry, his mother sent Charlie out into the rain again to collect moss and leaves. She prepared a ramekin of water with bread and cheese. They put it all in the bucket, but the little man continued to leer without moving. Alice mimed eating but still it didn’t move. She placed a morsel of bread on her tongue, and the pisky’s tongue rolled out – Alice pressed a crumb to it. ‘Charlie! He’s feeding from me!’

They had planned to bring their duvets to the sofa, to watch a film on their last afternoon at home. Charlie didn’t mention it as his mother squealed, letting the creature suck water from her fingertips. The little man grinned at her, lowering his face, black eyes narrowed under thick, nettle-leaf brows. Charlie shuddered. He took the cat to his bedroom, for time alone.

Wired for starting secondary school, Charlie heard his mother creep downstairs during the night to check on the thing in the bucket. He heard her whispers and wondered if she would come to the crack of his door too. He waited up late, then woke too early, unrested and shaky for his first day.

Charlie tipped the sandwich his mother had made him out of the lunchbox and was looking for a plastic bag to put it in, when she came down to find the thing had soiled itself.

‘I don’t want to be late.’ Charlie called from the kitchen, hearing his father’s car pull up outside. He stood on tiptoe to unbolt the door. When Alice didn’t appear to say goodbye, he went into the living room. She was singing Froggy Went A-Courting softly and running moist cotton wool gently across a tiny naked rump. The pisky, bent over, smirking back at her.

‘Bye,’ Charlie said. His mother smiled up at him. ‘I can’t wait to hear all about it this afternoon. Keep Little Man our secret. We wouldn’t want anyone taking him away,’ she said. She stood up to run her hand over soft hair gelled stiff, but Charlie ducked, so she blew him a kiss with one hand instead – the hand holding dirty cotton wool.

Charlie spent that weekend with his father. Alice spent Saturday at the kitchen table sewing a tiny pair of green felt trousers, tunic, and pointed hat – the bucket on a chair beside her.

She was wearied by the sleepless nights, but the little face looking back at her whenever she glanced at it made up for that. Every couple of hours she woke to rustling leaves downstairs. She would blearily finger-feed it a little milk and wipe it down. She dug out their old baby bottles but it would not accept the rubber teat, like Charlie hadn’t.

That night she fed it titbits from her salmon and vegetables, even giving it a drop of Sauvignon. She talked to it softly. It hung on her every word. It was lovely company, except when she lost sight of its hands beneath the beard, which was why she was making the clothes.

On Sunday morning she came down and found it still fast asleep. For a second, she worried it was ill. She stroked it and it came to snarling at her finger, then, remembering where it was, grinned at her with hooded eyes.

The cat was at the door trying to get outside, when she noticed the fur matted with white discharge under its tail. She hoped it had brushed up against something and wasn’t ill. In the kitchen she was surprised to find the wine bottle out on the table, uncapped and empty on its side. She hadn’t realised she’d finished it. It wasn’t like her not to put an empty straight into the recycling box, but there was no other explanation.

When Charlie was dropped home, his father stood on the doorstep, awkward as always now.

‘Is Charlie alright?’ he said. ‘He was a bit quiet.’

‘He doesn’t like meeting strangers.’ Alice folded her arms, but felt something like relief.

That night, she brought down their duvets to watch a film with popcorn. But halfway through the pisky tore the seams apart on its new tunic and trousers. It kicked the clothes into a pile then urinated over them. Disappointed, Alice sewed them back together in the kitchen, and fed it a bit of biscuit.

She missed the end of the film and found Charlie staring at the black glow of the credits.

‘You’ve missed the end,’ he said.

‘I don’t mind.’ She put her arms out to him, but he pulled away, dragging his duvet up the stairs to bed. He’d barely touched his popcorn, so she boxed it up to use as snacks for the little man.

Two weeks later it was Charlie’s birthday. The box on the kitchen table was huge. At breakfast Charlie slurped smoothie through a bendy straw, unable to keep a smile from his face.

‘You’ll never guess. Open it.’ Alice laughed.

But Charlie wanted to delay the pleasure – enjoying the attention, despite himself. He tapped it. It was hard, firm, hollow, cold.

‘Is it a book?’ He pressed his temples, grinning.

‘Come on,’ Alice was suddenly short. ‘I want to set it up.’

Charlie ripped open a large glass fish tank.

‘What’s it for – ’ he spoke slowly, not wanting to sound ungrateful.

‘Our Little Man!’ His mother squeaked at him.

Alice arranged the tank as she thought the pisky might like it. She had looked into cages too, but for some reason thought the tank was safer. The leaves and moss were in one corner, the ramekin in another. She had even taken Charlie’s old box of clitter collected from the tors and stacked the rocks up into a tiny folly, of sorts. But when the lid went on, the pisky threw the rocksagainst the glass front until the lid came back off.

‘Lid off?’ Alice spoke loudly, pointing at the lid. ‘Lid. Off?’

‘Why didn’t you get it a house?’ Charlie said, suddenly pitying the wild creature, scarlet, panting, with no privacy.

‘Because it might run away,’ she said.

They ate birthday pizza from their knees in the living room with the tank. The pisky pressed itself against the glass. Its face crushed flat, monstrous in miniature. Alice offered it a nibble of pizza, but the melted cheese caught in its throat. She held it by the feet, and flicked its back. It spat a little, recovered. She balled it tight against her chest.

‘Don’t worry, Charlie,’ she said, calming down. ‘He’s OK, see?’

Charlie watched it smile, sliding filthy toes into the shadow of his mother’s labouring chest. He lost his appetite. The cake didn’t even make it out of the cellophane before it was time for him to go.

Charlie opened the door to his father, who wore a party hat and feather boa, singing Happy Birthday To You at the top of his voice. Charlie wrapped his arms around him and was half carried down the path.

Alice closed the door before they’d passed out of the front gate. She had found patterns for dolls clothes on the internet and bought some expensive woollen tweed.

Charlie tried to finish his homework at the kitchen table. He could hear his mother in the living room. She’d bought a doll’s wardrobe, a miniature bed frame for the leaves and moss, and a dining table with six chairs for visitors it would never receive. She liked to spend time with it in the evenings and tonight it wore its new formal clothes happily – stroking the waistcoat; posing, one hand on a hip, the other running through its long beard. She was working on a second set, in midnight blue silk.

‘Don’t do that.’ She reprimanded it quietly. ‘I’m not laughing.’

Charlie knew what it was doing. He knew where its hands were. It had lived with them for a month now, and Charlie still wanted to put it back where they found it. ‘But it wouldn’t survive now,’ his mother had said firmly. ‘It needs us.’ Yet when she came down in the mornings Alice sometimes found threads of moss on the kitchen table, leaf skeleta on the sofa – it would never settle with the lid on its tank.

‘I’ve had enough,’ Alice snapped. ‘You never listen to me.’

Charlie couldn’t concentrate, his heart beating fast, wanting to know what would happen next. His mother staggered through the kitchen, buckling beneath the heavy glass tank. Charlie stood quickly, reaching to share the weight.

‘Stay out of this, Charlie,’ she said, so he sat back down. He heard the trap door to the old grain cellar whine open in the utility room.

‘Would you like to stay down here, or would you like to behave properly?’ Alice trudged, carefully, step by step. Charlie smelt the drifting peaty darkness. ‘Stop that! You horrible little thing.’

The lid was slammed back on, something heavy thudded on top of it. Alice dashed up the cellar stairs to run her finger under the tap at the kitchen sink. Water rushed into a tiny wound, thinning out bright, shining blood. Charlie, still smarting himself, did not look up.

‘He bit me,’ she said, amazed. She bled for a long time.

The following morning, his mother was tense. She grimaced when she accidentally caught her finger on something – the wound deeper than it had looked.

‘I don’t feel well,’ Charlie pushed away his bowl of cereal. He suffered from pain in his belly most mornings now.

‘You’re a big boy, Charlie.’ Alice sighed. ‘Eat up.’

Charlie thought the milk seemed oiled with pale yellow. It clung where it met the sides of his bowl. He swallowed down a ball of disgust.

They left the house, both avoiding the utility room, where the open trap door still yawned boggy breath.

Charlie got home before Alice and made his own snack, filling a glass with milk, pushing bread into the toaster. It was never as nice as when she delivered it in four neat triangles, he thought, and took the lid carefully off the kettle to fill it for her. A few minutes later Alice burst through the back door, forehead still sliced up with bad mood, and rushed down into the cellar.

‘Oh!’ She emerged slowly, the pisky swooned across the cup of her hands. She winced as it lolled against the finger it had mauled. ‘Charlie, it’s sick.’ The creature’s eyelids flickered, and Charlie knew it wasn’t. ‘Shit.’ His mother had never knowingly sworn in front of him. Charlie cringed to hear the crude word of the older boys upon her lips.

‘It might be thirsty. And give me that toast.’ She fed it from his plate and his cup. The little man began to revive. ‘Bring the tank up? I can’t – ’ She nodded down at the thing cradled in her arms.

In the cellar Charlie grasped the tank with wide arms. Its corners were sharp, the glass slippery. Concentrating hard to place his feet home on each of the narrow cellar steps, he was glad to get it back to the living room. He balled his hands to hide red palms. It had been heavier than he expected.

The rest of that week, Alice spoiled the pisky; feeding it from her good finger; leaving the room when she saw things she didn’t want to see. Charlie barely left his bedroom, but because of her sore finger he was forced to help his mother make nutritionally-sophisticated meals, much more involved than the food they heated up for themselves. She unthinkingly passed him knives he had never been permitted to touch as her finger got worse not better.

‘I’ll be scarred.’ She laughed, rolling her eyes. ‘With the shape of his little mouth.’

Her bandages yellowed with pus, smelling rich and nutty; Charlie had to remind her to change them.

‘Are you OK?’ Charlie asked one morning when he brushed past her and she yelped.

She smiled, stroked his cheek, but said nothing. Charlie stopped mentioning his tummy aches. He worried for her wet eyes and mallow pink cheeks. Her hair had become knotted as she stopped washing it. She kept the finger raised, except when driving, binding her forearm up and across her heart, so it could not get in the way.

That Friday night, Charlie found his mother slumped over the kitchen table with a baby-weaning book.

‘I think I’ve caught something,’ she said, wiping sweat from her forehead, passing him the book. ‘Can you feed Little Man?’

Charlie watched her limp the stairs to bed before shoving the book into the kitchen bin. In the living room, the creature was adjusting its cuffs, smoothing its lapels. It glanced at him and looked away. Charlie turned off the lights and went upstairs.

All evening he heard his mother’s bed creak and moan across the hallway as she struggled to rest. At midnight Charlie took her his own glass of water.

‘My lovely boy,’ she said, gulping it down, her eyes full of stars.

‘What shall I do?’ he asked, weakly.

‘I’m OK, pudding. You go to bed,’ she said.

A crash came from the kitchen, but his mother had fallen back into her hot fever.

Charlie looked at the string dispenser rolling to and fro on the floor in the moonlight. The creature took a length of string and lassoed it around the fridge handle. It turned, string across its shoulder, and heaved with a black-toothed grimace, eyes squeezed shut, to break the seal of the door. It had the incongruous strength of an insect.

It pulled up onto a shelf in the fridge door, using both arms to twist the top off a bottle. Then, balanced on the rim, it dropped its trousers and relieved itself into Charlie’s milk. It tugged up an armful of cold, hard melted cheese from the leftovers of Charlie’s pasta and vaulted onto the kitchen surface. It hurdled a teaspoon and slid across a plate tipped up to dry. The plate lost its purchase and smashed to the floor. The pisky didn’t look back. It was staring at the cat asleep in its basket.

The cat roused when the pisky touched the cheese to its nose. The cat nudged it, then took the morsel from the tiny hands, purring with satisfaction, ignoring the little man rubbing against it.

Charlie was revolted. He snatched the pisky up, trousers still around its ankles, and slammed back the bolt of the door to run out into the night.

Afterwards, Charlie curled up on the empty side of his mother’s bed, wiping a flannel across her face, offering her the paracetamol she kept in a prohibited cupboard in the bathroom. He read the instructions and took note of each time he gave her a dose, keeping an eye on the yellow curd creeping from under the bandage across her tight grey skin.

When it got light, he went downstairs and called the doctor.

‘You were very lucky. Any later and the infection might have spread to the whole hand,’ the surgeon said, on her discharge round.

‘I feel like I’ve lost a limb,’ Alice said, sore and low now the anaesthetic had worn off.

‘It’s only a finger. You’ll get used to it. This young man’ll help.’ She wondered who the doctor was talking about, then noticed Charlie on her other side.

When the doctor left the room, Alice placed her good hand into Charlie’s.

‘What about my little man?’ she asked, slurring.

‘Dunno,’ Charlie shrugged. ‘Think it ran away.’

‘Oh,’ she said, with a small, sad smile. She lifted her good hand to stroke his face, wondering when it had become so gaunt. ‘Could you open the window a crack, pudding?’ she said.

Charlotte Turnbull graduated from Oxford University and spent many years in in production and development for UK film and television. She now writes for television from Dartmoor, where she lives with her family. She had her first short story published this summer in Mslexia magazine and has another forthcoming this autumn in Crow & Cross Keys. She is @CharlieRatpig on Twitter.

photo by Annie Spratt (via unsplash)

She is Beautiful—Grace Safford

A woman in white robes stands by my bedside and says she must return to the earth. I open my eyes and know I am not dreaming.

I’d seen her before, this woman, in my mother’s garden, dancing between the rows of my neighbor’s harvest, painting her nails with lavender and her skin with honeycomb. Everyone in town knows her. She tends to our crops, fussing over corn knocked down in floods, digging at trees bored by foreign beetles, separating typha from wheat. When the grasses curl in the creeping heat, timothy and cogon, she is there when no one else dares to step outside.

We all know her. All day she skips in the footsteps of the farmers offering whispers of advice. She smells like thyme and everyone on the street can feel her in their throats when she dances. In the sun, it’s the foxtrot. In the rain, it’s the paso doble. In the mornings, we all watch as she bathes in the sun and watch again at night when she sheds her white robe and sinks into the loose dirt behind the alfalfa fields.

The first time we saw her step into the earth we thought she’d been lost to a sinkhole. The second time we knew she was meant to be there.

It has become a ritual for us, watching this woman from the corners of our eyes, through our windows. She makes us feel warm and whole when the sun touches her shoulders and content when she tucks herself in with us at night. From afar, we all think she is beautiful and kind and we like looking at her.

But before we sleep we say to ourselves that she can’t be real. That the ground has no woman, no mistress. No skin that can be pierced. We watch her from the corners of our eyes but say we’re looking elsewhere, somewhere. The neighborhood calls her the lady of the earth and pretend they don’t see her when they can hear her dancing.

Look but don’t touch. I waved and grinned at her once while she tried to save a tangle of trees from getting cut down, enchanted by her face, and already that was too much. My mother said the woman was like a stray dog—feed it once and it will never stop scratching at your back door.

Now, she stood at my bedside dripping loam on my floor.

“Waving boy. I’ve been trying to step into my dirt all night,” she says, brushing my forehead with mud. “It won’t open. I want to go to bed. Will you try?”

She is beautiful and kind and I like looking at her so I stand. I tell her she looks real up close.

The woman smiles with her eyes. She pulls me through my window and I feel like a bandit as she sings to the moon. Her hands are sticky with honey but I think I want to be stuck to them. We laugh and run and she teaches me how to do a box step across my mother’s garden.

Her patch of earth is just out beyond my neighbor’s alfalfa field—the hidden place where he swings his laundry to dry in hopes we won’t steal his clothes if they’re so close to her. She pauses to pick woodlice and cigarette butts from his greens before kneeling next to the small circle of loose dirt underneath his bed sheets.

We know this circle. The neighborhood boys often dare each other to touch the dirt with one foot. To them and their after-school games, it’s a rite of passage to brush the soil and walk away without falling into the earth. No boy in my neighborhood has passed on to manhood.

Our parents say it’s just a pile of mulch. The lady of the earth isn’t real, of course. They pretend they don’t see her when they can hear her dancing but watch her bathe in the sunlight and drop her robe at night.

The woman clears her throat and presses her hands to her circle. They look like my mother’s hands in her garden, warm with sand and stone but never reaching past her knuckles.

“Every time I place a hand on my soil it doesn’t move,” the woman says. “See? It should be passing through. The soil shouldn’t be this thick.”

Before I can move she grabs my arm and pulls it to her circle. I scream, fearful I’ll be the first boy to slip into manhood, only to hit the hard earth with a small thud. Both of our palms press against her soil, grasping at the dirt that looks looser than it is.

“There’s something wrong,” she whispers.

“I don’t understand,” I say, hoping our fingers will touch in the dirt.

She gathers her robes around her and looks across my neighbor’s fields. The woman snaps a molding branch from a tree and frowns. “Maybe it doesn’t recognize me,” she says, spreading her toes across her home. “We must help it.”

The woman pulls off her robes and runs through the alfalfa field. Under the purple of the sky the soles of her feet look as warm as daytime bleached in honey. Her gait is odd and untamed but she is beautiful and kind and I like looking at her so I kick off my shoes and go after her, practicing my box step with the rhythm of the cicadas.

I’d seen her do odd things in the moonlight before. In past harvests she would stand under our peach trees, waiting for them to shower her with their gifts while tapping out a jig on her legs. Spring became my favorite season. She hasn’t showered with fruit since the blight killed the trees two summers ago. I miss watching the peach juice flush her cheeks. Maybe now I can fall in love with alfalfa.

She laughs when she sees me running and says we must cover her. Change her taste. Move her body closer to the soil. She plucks apple leaves and rubs them over her eyes. I gather holly branches and twist them into her hair like my mother taught me to do in hers. The woman sings as we tear through my neighbors crops, tossing aside the rotting ones, robing her in grapevines and kale instead of cloth. We are people possessed, moved by the night and the smell of cut muhly. She teaches me the promenade as she rubs pollen on her knees.

“I wish I had a picture of you,” I tell her, looking at the green on her back. “A picture of this moment.”

She ruffles my hair and I smell like holly and grapes and she smells like thyme. I wonder if the neighborhood will see me dancing and think I am just a boy of the earth, a phantom with no shoes. What would it be like to not be real? The woman places seeds on her tongue and I make sure to tuck strawberries in my pockets.

“I am done,” she says, picking another cigarette butt and folding one last mint sprig behind her ear. “The soil will swallow me and know to plant me like one of its trees.”

If she were a tree, I think, she would be a willow, moving to the wind and too graceful to understand.

We run back through the alfalfa, wild with fruit. “Tomorrow I will teach you the tango,” the woman promises, pulling the neighbor’s clothes from the line and wrapping them around my shoulders. She kisses me on the cheek as quick as a bee sting before twirling on her toes and jumping into her circle.

Her feet sink down a half an inch before they stop. She digs in her heels, pressing until they are white, but her feet still don’t move.

We stay silent until she is so quiet I’m not sure if I can see her.

Finally she steps out of her circle and lies on the ground.

“You must look inside me,” she says, holding out a stick and stone. “There must be something wrong with me. It’s the only answer.”

She is beautiful and kind and I like looking at her so I crack her open. Her skin splits and her ribcage implodes. Inside, she is a field. Buckwheat protects her lungs and ivy twists around her bones. Where her stomach should be she grows barley in plenty. Her liver functions on the roots of rye. I want to reach inside of her and pull out a bouquet for my mother, but when my nose gets close to her body, I flinch.

On the inside she doesn’t smell like thyme. She smells like ash.

“Is there something wrong?” she asks, anchoring her heels at the edge of her circle.

I don’t answer. I run to my home and grab a flashlight and shine it inside of her. The grasses that seemed lush and green in the dark are burnt in the light. In the corner of her chest under her heart burns the last remnants of the wildfire that sparked in her stomach.

“You’re on fire,” I tell her. “You’re… dying.”

She lifts her head to peer inside of her. “I can’t be on fire. That’s not true.”

“You’re dying. There’s almost nothing left.”

She shakes her head. “That can’t happen, not to me. I am forever.” She pushes a fist under her heart, pulling from it a small head of clover.

We both watch as a bud of ember spreads across its three leaves, bending and wilting the clover before us until its head is bowed like it is ready to start a bolero. Its leaves fall one by one, burning in her hand.

We suddenly see it. Beneath the holly hiding her neck, beneath the pulp on her collar bones. The singed tips of her hair. The scabs on her lips. The cracks on her nails running all the way up to the decayed bed. The ash, so much ash, grey and layered, coating each fingertip. The things that had maybe been there the whole time.


She drops the stem and looks up at me with her apple eyes. “I am ruined.”

I try and take her hand. “But you are still beautiful! Forget this. We can still dance in the moonlight one last time and it will be fun and beautiful and good. I am ready to learn the tango.”

She slaps my wrist so hard the dirt on my palm shakes off. “I am ruined,” she repeats. She looks out across my neighborhood, at the houses and parkways, at the clothing lines and stoops. “I am ruined,” she says again to the windows.

She closes her eyes. “Will you give me water?”

I step back. “Me? I’m just one person. I… I don’t think I have enough water for you, not in my house. Not alone.”

She touches my wrist, softly this time. “Please?”

All I can do is look at her face and wish I had a camera to remember her with. I settle for reaching inside of her ribs, taking an unburnt clover to keep at my bedside.

She tugs her robe around her, hiding the hole in her body. She begins to run, run away from me, abandoning the dance that usually takes hold of her feet. The pollen rubs off of her knees and the holly flies out of her singed hair as she starts to scream. “Water, I need water! Water! I’m on fire! Help! Please!”

But the neighborhood sleeps. They call her the lady of the earth and pretend she isn’t real. They pretend they can’t see her when they can hear her screaming. They turn their heads in their pillows and cover their ears with their hands and they sleep without a twitch or a stumble.

The woman runs all night, screaming, the honeycomb on her skin melting until she no longer glows.

In the morning, when they all rise to watch the lady bathe in the sun, all they see is smoke.

Grace Safford is a writer from a town in Northern Vermont so small cartographers sometimes confuse it for a lake. She’s passionate about gardening, feminism, whales, and wearing very ugly socks. You can find her work published or forthcoming in Ghost City Press, Twist in Time, Lucent Dreaming, Dear Damsels, and Corvid Queen. Currently, she is working on her first novel and an activity book.

photo by Kimmy Williams (via unsplash)

A Small Eternity—Chip Jett

The first gift I received from my mother was a stuffed panda. The panda had been hers, she said, when she was a little girl. Its plastic nose hung by a thread, and many of its seams were resewn. It was worn, and loved, and it became mine. 

Four Leyland Cypress trees were brought as gifts, like the panda, to Mom’s funeral, and my grieving father left me to deal with them. He was lost without Mom, and her death came between us hard and fast, like the strike of a poisonous snake. Many things under his purview became mine: cooking, cleaning, and, eventually, planting the trees, which I did, at the back of our yard between the house and the woods. 

Two things happened after I planted the trees. First, they grew quickly. Within a year, the cypress tress had grown from the two-foot little bushes they had been into the twelve-foot beasts they are now. This rapid growth effectively created a wall between our house and the woods, with about a ten foot clearing between. We used to stare into those woods, Mom, Dad, and I. We would speculate on what manner of creatures lurked there. Ghosts? Goblins? Giants? Our imaginations gave life to the myths.

The second thing that happened with the planting of the trees was the haven it created for a near constant murder of crows. I watched the cypresses from the kitchen window, the way my parents and I used to watch the wood line now hidden behind them. Crows descended daily from the heavens, many at a time, and disappeared behind the cypress. Sometimes their chatter was loud enough to hear from the house, and I would wonder how many crows could fit into that clearing. 

And though I watched, day after day, I never saw the crows leave. 

Granted, I didn’t sit for hours on end. It’s possible – likely, in fact – that the crows came and went when I wasn’t looking. As some say cardinals are the spirits of loved ones passed on, I came to associate the crows with my dead mother. The sound of crows was constant, and it brought me some level of comfort. 

There’s a table carved from a single pine log by the window in our kitchen. Four log seats surround the table, though we ever only needed three. We used to sit on these stumps and eat our meals, when the family was still intact. I’m the only one who uses the table now. I don’t eat there, but I write or read or watch the crows. 

And so it was, one day, I sat at this table by the window. My father had left for the day without saying goodbye, which, for a year, had been his custom. I don’t remember what I was writing, but I remember what stopped me. The chattering crows, their constant conversation so common in the kitchen, ceased. It was as if some giant hand flipped a switch from ‘on’ to ‘off;’ the sound was there, and then it wasn’t. 

It was then I looked up and saw her. I caught only a glimpse, but she was unmistakable.  

My mother passed among the cypress, planted in her honor, branches of evergreen closing behind where she walked. She gave a quick ‘follow me’ glance over her shoulder and vanished. 

I did as she asked.

It was a cool November day, the Monday of Thanksgiving break. Though it must have been well past noon, frost still crunched under my feet. I left footprints where I walked, and so should have my mother. But there were none. 

I pushed through the branches my mother had used. Beyond was the clearing, between the cypresses and the woods. The little clearing was silent, which was odd, covered in crows as it was.

I’m not sure what I expected to see; my dead mother, of course. Certainly not a clearing full of silent crows. But the birds are what I saw.

The crows – more than I could count – stood together, as if waiting, and I suppose maybe they were; little else could explain their silent behavior. I walked to the center, and as I did, the birds cleared a path for me. And there, set purposefully in the middle of this space, by spirit or crow, was a tree stump, of the kind around our family table. I sat.

I waited for my mother’s cold, dead hands to fall on my shoulders, for her words to tell me the conflict with my father had gone on long enough. Maybe I waited for some other sort of peace. 

I sat there, with the crows and Mom’s ghost, for how long, I do not know. She spoke to me without words, loved me without condemnation. She knew of my pain at her loss. She knew, also, my pain at my father’s disconnection. So my mother did what a mother does, and she comforted me.

When at last she spoke aloud, it was as if the crows and the wind listened as well, for all was quiet. 

“Look around and you’ll see me,” I felt her say. “Listen, and you’ll hear.”

That was all she said.

The crows milled about, jumping here or there at one another, wings flapping out wide. Some scratched at the ground, some tugged at one another’s beaks at whatever meal had been unearthed. I only decided to leave when they did. 

As sudden as their cries had stopped, they resumed again. The sound became deafening, for there must have been hundreds of crows around me. With a piercing roar, they rose as one into the late November gray and left me alone on the stump of wood, thinking of my mother.

Somewhere in my life, I came to understand that crows will reciprocate a gift. Perhaps I gleaned this jewel from many readings of The Rats of Nimh, or maybe it’s something from conversations with Mom. Either way, before I left the clearing, I took the only object I had in my pockets – the pen I used earlier for writing – and placed it on the stump. I’m not sure what possessed me to do such a thing, but it was done, and I walked back home.

That night, I tried to speak to my father, but he only grunted and shrugged at my conversation. He closed his bedroom door when the sun went down and left me alone. 

In the morning, drinking coffee by the window, I watched a single crow fly into then out of the clearing behind Mom’s cypresses. I had only a moment to consider this oddity before my mother’s voice said in my ear, “Go and see.” I nearly fell off my seat twisting around for a look. But the house was empty, Dad having left with the sunrise. I looked back to the woods in time to see my mother, once again slipping between the Leyland Cypress and into the clearing beyond.

Once again, I did as she asked. 

I set my coffee down, pulled on a coat and hat, and went outside.

The morning was another cold, gray shroud over my house and yard. The cypresses ahead were veiled, and in the mist I saw my mother’s hands closing the branches behind her. I passed through, hoping to catch another glimpse, but instead, I found the clearing empty, save the stump situated at its center.

And on this stump was a gift. 

The gift was not the pen I had left for the crows. Instead, one of their number had taken my offering and had put, in exchange for the pen, the rusted tab of a soda can.

My heart leapt.

I stuffed the pop top in my pocket and looked around for my benefactor, hoping in vain a crow had waited to see my reaction. But none had. Neither had my mother, though I entertained the idea, for a while actually, that it was she who swapped gifts with me. I searched for the ghost, for the one who beckoned me from the house. I listened for her comforting words again, but only the wind whispered to me this day.

“The crows left me a gift,” I told my father, later, when he came home from work.

“Did you see your mother again?” he asked, because I told him about that as well.

“I did.”

He went to bed, without eating supper, and left me to think of what next to leave the crows.

Later that evening, I heard them descend with the night into the clearing. Their cries were loud, but not so loud as to rouse my father. I slipped on a housecoat and put the next gift into my pocket – a little button with a red heart on it. I don’t know how the button came to be mine, but it’s been pinned to my school bag for a couple of years now. As a gift for crows, the button would do; the heart on it was for my mother.

Though it was dark out, I saw her in the distance. She stepped between the cypresses, encouraging me onward in the darkness. When at last I placed the button on the stump, however, I was alone, and neither was she there the next morning when I went to see what new trinket was in its place.

I was not disappointed. The crows had taken my button and left a rusted nail, the kind in the shape of a horseshoe used to hold fencing in place. 

This dance went on for several days, and my collection of odds and ends grew: a coin and a paperclip, a seashell and a key. I loved each gift more than the one before, as each, somehow, brought me closer to my mother. 

And in turn, these little gifts brought me closer to my father. 

With each gift I received, my father’s interest grew. We guessed at the meaning, if any, behind the items. Were they random, or were they selected specifically for me? We speculated on the wonders of crows, and we reminisced about Mom. 

Slowly, over the course of many days, my father began to return to me. 

In June, Dad received a promotion at work, and we moved from the house and my mother’s Leyland Cypress. The night before we left, I placed a final gift on the stump in the clearing behind the trees: a ring made from twist ties collected from several loaves of bread. Though I wasn’t sure if my mother still haunted the trees, I spoke to her just the same. I thanked her for helping me deal with her loss, and for helping me find my father again.

The next morning, my father and I ate breakfast and watched the morning sun set the dew on fire. A single crow flew into the clearing, and I told my father I had one last thing to do.

A summer breeze rippled the cypresses, and it looked as if someone parted the branches before me. 

On the stump, in place of the ring I had left, a glass panda sat. It stood two inches high, and appeared hand carved. The little ears and nose were painted black, its belly white. It matched, in most every respect, the panda my mother had given me many years ago, except this one’s nose was intact.

I felt her warm hands on my shoulders and her voice in my ear. For a small eternity, I sat on the stump saying goodbye to my mother, and she said goodbye to me. The breeze died and the crow flew away.

I put the panda in my pocket and left the clearing to be with my father.

photo by Mabel Amber (via pixabay)