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The Queen of Hearts. Aoibheann McCann.

3 Jan

The Queen of Hearts

 

Matthew draws the worn playing card lightly over and back on his stomach trying to emulate the half-memory of a brush of long hair. The Queen of Hearts looks out at him with a red flower in her hand, commanding him to understand. She has no torso, but doubles back on herself, repeats the message he cannot decipher no matter how many times he turns the card around. Sometimes she tells him to leave; sometimes she is asking him to set her free.
His father returns just after darkness falls. The sweat on his forehead reflects the light of the oil lamp in his hand. Matthew comes out from under the table when Robert places the lamp above him. From exactly what he is hiding he isn’t told. Robert greets him with a grunt and a tousle of hair, then turns to prepare the dinner, which consists of brown bread with butter and cheese, that his father slathers in mustard. Matthew does not like the sting of the yellow mustard on his tongue, but knows better than to complain.
His father does not allow him to use the knife to cut either bread or ham for himself, or even butter, nor is he to touch the axe his father keeps sharpened by the door and under his bed at night. The axe is an extension of Robert’s arm to cut fallen wood into logs, which Robert sells somewhere outside the woods.
Why the people do not come for their own wood and gather it where it lies for the taking, the boy can’t imagine, unless, like him, they were too afraid of Robert, and the dark woods that surround the cabin, their tree branches clawing on the windows at night.
His father speaks to him when he eats, spitting chunks of food into his beard and onto the table. Then sweeps the heel and crumbs with his arm to the floor where the dog waits. Dog by night, Matthew by day, wearing a smooth groove into the stone floor. The dog, Laddie, a red setter, has no regard for the boy.
His father sits by the fire then, swigging from a bottle, staring into the fire. Matthew’s heart is like a stone dropped in a pool, lost and hard, the ripples having long fanned out into nothingness.
The woodcutter had won Matthew’s mother in a game of cards. The mer-people swam up to the dock on weekends, languished in the shallows. The fish had gone and pollution pumped into the sea from the mill. The men had developed a taste for alcohol and cards. Their women sell all they have left under the pier and then return to their reservation pool, west of the docks.
And so the woodcutter had come by Ethel. He had named her himself as she had never spoken and had grown drier and paler the further into the woods he carried her. He had thrown her back the next day, more dead than alive, as she had been the night before, the smell of rotting fish overwhelming the cabin.
The child had been left outside his door, in a bucket, some months later, but he had no gills like his mother and red hair like his father. The woodcutter had sighed and taken him in, fed him watered down cow’s milk he exchanged for wood. The child never suffered from any illnesses, but his father couldn’t risk an accident so he bid him stay under the table when he became too heavy to carry. He no longer tied him to the leg of the table as the child was obedient and does not even try to venture outdoors.
Occasionally after late nights in town, his father brings a woman back. When they see Matthew they touch his hair and gasp at its colour, but the same woman never returns twice.
The only woman in his life is The Queen of Hearts, a single red backed playing card that he found sticking up from between the floorboards. He loves her so much her image is worn down from the curve of his cheek. He thinks this is a picture of his mother. That is what his father says when he asks.
Then one evening his father does not come home, the night is long and dark, the branches claw at the windows. Matthew asks the Queen what to do. She tells him to leave. In the morning when the light returns and the branches retreat he opens the door with the key his father said was only to be used in case of a fire, and ventures through the woods. He follows the path, it is silent, the branches welcome him and part to allow him pass. He realises they too work for the Queen and will help him find his way out of the woods. The trees thin out and he steps into the light. He cannot bear it, and steps back. The branches prod him forward again and he shades his eyes with his hand to go on.
He sees a huge cabin on stilts, the water washes up around it, there is a ramp that leads him up to its porch. There is a man by the door watching him approach. Matthew holds up the card in front of him, he laughs at Matthew, he gestures his thumb beyond. Matthew goes forward down a wooden walkway. Below him the roofs of the ruined houses are covered with bare-chested men whose bottom halves are submerged in the water. Their hair is long like his. He turns back to the first cabin and stands and stares at the man, until the man turns and goes inside and returns with a grey gruel that Matthew slurps from the bowl. Matthew curls up on the porch like the dog and sleeps then, the sounds of the town around him, the thump, thump on the wooden walkways, the Mer-men below in the water laughing and fighting in equal measure infiltrating his dreams.
In the morning the mayor of the town, John Gill is waiting for him. He has short red hair, the same colour as Matthew. He takes him to a house. It is on stilts too but is the biggest house in the village. There are other boys there with long hair like seaweed, like him. They sleep together in lines of bunk beds. John Gill points him to an empty one in the corner.
In the daytime there are chores. He is set to fetching water by the shapeless woman who opens the door in the morning and serves them the watery porridge, but there is food and company and freedom in the afternoon. The first afternoon Matthew goes to the edge of the boardwalk to spy on the mer -people. They play cards on the flat roof of a submerged house, bobbing up and down in the tide. The cards are set up on crates and the sailors and locals sit on the wooden slats, playing against them, wagering spirits against the pearls the mer-men use to trade and gamble. The women splash in the distance, appearing now and again to check for customers. Matthew marvels at their beauty, their hair like his. He wonders which one is his mother, sees none who look as regal as the Queen of Hearts card he keeps under his mattress.
Though soon he sees that very child in the orphan house has a worn playing card from the same pack, everyone a queen. The boys who surround him on the first afternoon have shown him their Queen of Hearts. They lead him to the flooded quarry on top of the hill. It is black and green with algae and does not reflect the sun. He is afraid, but the other boys surround him chanting and he jumps in, his stomach sick. He swims like a fish and he glides, feels free for the first time, he joins with the water under the sky and knows why he has left the woods, why he was born, where he belongs. He swims with his hair flowing behind him. The boys are a lawless gang and the mayor and the other villagers are afraid of them, their silence, their stubborn refusal to engage in tasks they do not see as necessary. They will fetch water but will not fish or tend the animals up the hill. But they are the only children left in the town now. Sometimes fully human babies are born but they are sickly and unformed, missing an eye or both, or worse. They barely live out the day.
Matthew wonders less and less what has happened to his father. He wonders if he even was his father when and if he ever thinks about him. What kind of a father just doesn’t come home? But this is the tale every boy has to tell here, brought up alone in the town’s surrounds, and one day left here by their parent or finding their way here themselves.
Everyday they swim in the quarry, which looks down over the town. In the distance there is a castle, the flag that flies over it looks red in the distance. There lives the Queen of Hearts which they serve, the other boys say, they tell Matthew she can see them, and watches how brave they are swimming, how fast they jump in so they can serve her best by maybe someday diving for pearls for her crown. Matthew decides to dive in, the water barely ripples when he enters it from higher and higher heights. When he swims he swims for her. His card is left with his ragged clothes but fades more everyday, the light all pervasive where even these sallow boys burn in the hot sun. They are only safe diving in the murky waters here in the quarry and in the shade of its high cliff faces. They never swim in the waters below the village where the mermaids live. The mermen turn from them when they pass the boardwalk to gather water where the river meets the sea, before the salt water turns to salt. It is dirty no matter where it is gathered and has to be boiled in large vats outdoors which belch out sulphur. The housekeeper fills the cooling vats with the mint that grows profusely though the town, filling up the roofs of the half submerged houses nearest the woods and covering their charred walls with green riot. Mint is one of the few things that grows, mint and Johnny goosegrass which the boys stick to each other’s clothes and occasionally chew upon. They mostly eat the meat of the scrawny animals who are butchered screaming for all to hear in the abattoir hut, the smell of their blood, shit and fear mingling with the mint and sulphur.
Sometimes girls show up just as Matthew has, shown here by the mayor but they disappear again within the day. Matthew does not know where they go to, he thinks maybe there is a separate place for them somewhere. Nor does he see the older boys leave, as they seem to when they their voices deepen and whiskers sprout on their upper lip, and they become Jacks, the old cards tossed away, almost disintegrated, they are beholden to the Queen no more. If she has not sent for you by the time your voice finally stops playing games and drops for good, you must leave. Matthew sees the Jack of Hearts has an axe like his father had. He wonders where he is.
The leadership of the gangs change then in a vicious burst of uncharacteristic violence reserved only for this. And daily now the bottom gaps are filled, the ranks are swelled by the new children who turn up terrified clutching their cards to their chest, tangled hair down past their shoulders. Matthew regards them as he was regarded, in silence. In silence he matches his card to theirs and leads them to the quarry for their first swim. He points them to the castle.
Once a month the joker appears, the boys go to jeer at him but he makes Matthew afraid. He carries a stick with perfect replica of himself on top, his ribbon becomes a whip that he twirls as he spins, almost floating. Then he laughs, passes around his tricolor hat for offerings. When he waves goodbye, his flapping hand turns into a pointed finger and the boy he points towards must join his side and leave with him to the castle. They never look back, and the boys are never seen again.
The boys who leave alone head for the mountains; they say the water is clean there, that the girls wait for them there, that there are no villagers and no mer-people, that they will be free. Matthew strokes his upper lip for hair, listens for change in his voice.
The joker comes for him in the night. He floats up to the window and taps on it with his whip, none of the other boys stir. Matthew tucks his fading card into his shirt and leaves by the front door that is never locked. The joker doesn’t speak; Matthew follows him through the dark by the sound of the bells. They reach the castle by daybreak. The joker turns and nods at him before he knocks on the gate. The drawbridge is lowered.
Inside it is cold and dark, Matthew wants to see the queen but he cannot see anyone, not even the joker. He can hear crying. It seems to come from the walls.
When the sun rises he sees some boys he recognizes but they are different. These boys are broken now. The food, which is heralded with a gong, appears on a long table that did not appear to be there before. The boys file along silently and take their place on the benches. They do not even acknowledge Matthew.
There is bread, brown and hard, but it is bread. There is butter; Matthew has not had butter since he left his father’s house. He follows the boys after they eat; they go to the throne room through a door behind a dusty moth eaten tapestry where a younger Queen rides a unicorn and laughs. The Queen is there, his Queen, the rose in the hand but she has legs. But she does not sit on the throne; she sits at the edge of the raised steps. The joker takes his place on the throne.
His Queen sits to one side, always crying, mumbling from time to time, always the same thing, Matthew positions himself near her ‘Hearts, Spades, Clubs, Diamonds’, she says over and over she mumbles. The other boys kneel down and bow before the joker. He takes them in turn into the back room sometimes an hour at a time, they come back more silent than before. Matthew knows he has left his father’s house for nothing. He knows he must leave and take the Queen with him. He sees the other boys will not follow; they obey the joker without question. He must go before he is broken too.
When the third boy is chosen and the joker is gone again, Matthew steps forward and takes the Queen’s hand and pulls her up, still sobbing. He turns and drags her to the door he came in by. They are let out of the drawbridge without question. They turn left, and take the path to the mountains.
All the years that seemed so long, all the years he spoke to her on the card and sought comfort from her, and heard her advice in his head, and prayed to her though he did not know what praying was, all the years he followed the advice he thought he heard her give, all the things she bid him do, leave his father’s house, join her other devotees, swim with abandon. She was comfort after the recurrent nightmare where the tree branches come and take him back, pluck him from his bunk bed in the mayor’s house and place him back under his father’s table, where he no longer fits but the branches claw and poke until he is crammed underneath, the dog snarling endlessly for him to leave, his knees crammed against the table top.
Now she is here, the woman from the card, but she is weak and pathetic and hinders his way up the ravine, up the paths to the mountain while all the while he worries about why the joker did not stop them, doesn’t come after them, but there is no one to advise him now, there is no one to comfort him, the one thing he believed in is a lie, a weak and stupid lie. He looks at her now asleep on the ground where she fell after a few hours, he thinks about stamping on her head, taking her crown, which up close is nothing but pasted on plastic jewels that are worth nothing, but perhaps could trick some guileless fool into giving him something to eat other than the black berries that trail down on the path and claw at his fingers as he picks them. Still he gives her the best ones, he feeds them to her, her lips pouting to greedily suck and swallow the purple juice as if she is a baby bird and he the mother, as he had always assumed. But when she wakes they climb again, the yellow dust under their feet, her dusty velvet robes catching on every stone and briar but she does not take it off.
When they reach the mountains the older boys are waiting. They have been watching them make their way up. The girls are there too, watching with their black eyes. Some of them hold babies, who suckle as they stand. There are goats too; they walk among them, untethered. They take them to the caves, but they know it is temporary, he knows that his arrival with this creature does not gain him entrance to their world, that he has chosen the wrong path. The Jack of Hearts is painted on the wall of the cave they are shown. They eat the rich goat’s milk porridge and sleep for a while, and are sent on their way upwards into the clouds. Further up, the mountain seems impossibly steep but he pulls her upward. They come to old ruins at the top by nightfall; there are solid circular walls but no roofs. There is no miracle world up here, nor does there appear to be one back down the other side where the path now leads. The queen cries more when she realises this, as if she knows she is a wreck and the world is dirty and empty, but the next morning they keep walking, until they lose sight of the ruins and fall out of sight of the boys who followed them at a distance to the top, who watch her leave with Matthew, who have lost their hope too.
But the further down the mountain path they get the Queen changes, her sighs decrease, her back straightens and she walks quicker, stops less frequently to rest. Matthew barely notices it at first but it is as if they have changed places. He does not know where they are going now and his feet hurt. When he stops she points into the distance, to another mountain and smiles. He does not know what to take from this but he is dazzled by her new smile, it drives him on. On this side the joker’s power has weakened its hold. The sun comes up and illuminates the surrounding landscape; it is nothing like the village or the mountains behind them. Sickly thorny plants grow up through yellow dust and ruins. The track they take has not been used for some time, and then only by animals. The interior of the country is uninhabited now destroyed by something long ago. Sometimes they see movement ahead but it is nothing when they get there. The water the boys have given them is running low but the queen does not seem worried and now leads the way, picking up her robe with her hands and charging forward, face turned to the outline of the castle at the bottom of the mountain ahead.

 

 

 

Aoibheann McCann

 

Sirens. Eleanor Porter.

2 Jan

Sirens

Sirens rise like the larks
who peel roundels out of sky
till the nest loops them down again.

A grey dawn, but whether clouds
or the pall of smoke, I am not sure.
It has been burning for days.

Engines, like red beetles, quench a patch,
but the sparks play leapfrog.
Charred earth scabs the heath.

One day after school we went grasshopper hunting.
I found one crouched half hidden in your hair,
your hair the colour of the summer grass –

when we left a lark spiralled in alarm,
appealing appealing to the blue light
above the smog smudge of the horizon.

It can be beautiful here –
when the late light slants across the grass
and the green trees murmur to their shadows,

the evening blooms with picnics
and the dying sun flares the tower blocks,
our lonely towers.

Day to day we piece the hours
out of traffic and pavements, boxed lives
held in the tarred and cemented suffocation of the city streets.

We are too used to sirens.
Fuming commuters clog the Middle Road,
smoke furs towards me, will the rain come?

Ash tastes like panic in my mouth.
How late has it become? Is it too late already?
The earth burns.

Car keys, house keys, heavy in my pocket
I turn away, you need your breakfast,
We have places to get to.

Eleanor Porter

On a Louisiana Beach. Andrea Wyatt.

1 Jan

On a Louisiana Beach

Months after the spill
in Plaquemines Parish,
some migrant green-winged teal blues,
a few mallards who stopped to rest on the mudflats,
unaware of a Royal Dutch Shell oil spill,
90,000 gallons;

In every storm and tidal surge,
oil will flow–
over salt marsh and mangrove swamp
oil will flow–
over reeds and water lilies,
over blue crabs and ghost crabs
suffocating in the mud,
oil will flow;

clutch each frightened bird,
focus on the feathers,
the skin, the webbing,
protect their eyes and wings,
quietly whistle under your breath,
to calm their fright.

Andrea Wyatt

A Day in the Neighborhood. Sean Pravica.

30 Dec

Ten am

The Park
The blue sky rang loudly against silent rocks. Young flowers jitterbugged in a breezy ballad. While sitting quietly, a bird toppled over and grew quieter still.

The Bar
The bar top was so polished he could see his reflection bounce off its surface. It depressed him like hell. At least for now.

The Alley
A man poked his head out of a dumpster. The jogger, confronted with thousand yard eyes and the wretch of soiled cloth and old food, said, “Good morning.” It was a habit.

Two pm

The Playground
A needle lied in the grass. Behind him, he could hear his son calling his name.

The Office
The tooth ache was not going away, and neither were the bad dreams.

The Bedroom
Woke up. Rolled over. Lit up. Rolled over.

Six pm

The Restaurant
She slumped in her seat and shut one eye loosely, her long fingers wrapped around the tumbler. “I like drinks,” she said sweetly, wistfully. A long day long gone.

The Train Station
There were many reasons to stay, but he ignored them all. When he came back, she ignored him.

The Parking Lot
They misdiagnosed the distance left, then pushed the car into the nearest parking lot. Only one space was open, a blue one. They went for it anyway and soon after watched her wheel over from across the street while they waited for the tow truck, which couldnʼt come soon enough.

Ten pm

The Store
“But Mom, Iʼll buy it with my own money!” His were eyes serious and his curly hair messy and his walk a sloppy wobble. She promised him he could have candy next week, for his birthday. It will be his forty-fifth.

The Party
She looked more gorgeous than ever. He watched her walk in, and had to admit. That arm looked good around her.

The Break Room
Tired feet. Worn shoes. Holed socks. Apple sauce. 2 am

The Neighborhood
“Why?”
No one answered.

 

 

 

Sean Pravica

 

 

 

Orbit. Emily Horner.

28 Dec

Orbit

 

All that winter me and the other girls in the pack tried to tell ourselves that nothing was wrong. It was just because Lynette had left; it was just because of that blizzard we had to dig ourselves out of. And then Jamie, who’d come up from the village a few months ago, fifteen years old, still enamored of hot baths and pretty shoes, complained about our watercress and our boiled bark; and Stella snapped, “I haven’t seen you out hunting.”
Jamie walked out into the snow. I followed, running, with a coat and a lantern. Angry that Stella had said it and angry at the fifty times I’d thought the same thing.
“I should go back home,” she said when I caught up with her. She wiped at her nose with a mitten crusted in frozen snot. “She’s right. All I do is complain. All those stories they tell about the wolf-girls. How they’re so fierce and so loyal and so dedicated to each other. How they’re the ones who’re going to save people from the satellites. It’s the kind of dream you’re supposed to grow out of.”
“Stella hasn’t seen you out hunting because you don’t know how,” I said, shamed by it. When Lynette was in charge it was always – Jo, show Sara how to set the trap lines. Jo, show Stella how to find dry wood. And all this time I’d never said, Jamie, come hunting with me.
“Come on. Let’s see if we can’t find us something better than watercress.”
We took arrows with us, and bows – a big one, and the little one all us wolf-girls had learned on with our weak village-girl arms. We walked for miles up the ridges of the hills, on paths that were covered in half an inch of snow, and I pointed out to her the footprints of rabbits and grouse, the places where deer had chewed bark from trees. I adjusted her stance, the way she held her fingers on the arrow. Her arrows flew wide when she surprised a rabbit in the underbrush and scrambled for her bow.
She stomped ahead of me, and despite the darkness widened the gap between us until she disappeared over the top of the next ridge. “Jo!” she yelled, one long minute later. “Jo, come over here.”
I lengthened my stride. Could be a bear, a human corpse, a lacerated hand or broken leg.
What I found instead was – at first I wasn’t sure, even as I brought the lantern down the length and breadth of it. A rectangular metal body, as big as the vans I’d seen in junkyards or lying along the side of the road, part smooth panels and part crumpled peaks and valleys. A long flat wing that made me think of the angels in old books stretched out on either side.
She was the one who finally said, “That’s a satellite.”
It was what I’d been thinking, but what I couldn’t say. It seemed blasphemous to think that our enemies, the machine-minds of the satellites who had overthrown human civilization and almost wiped us out, were really nothing more than a bucket of metal bits, propped up with vast panels to catch the sun’s light.
“We should go tell Stella and the others,” Jamie said.
“No,” I said. A moment’s mad impulse. “Don’t tell anybody.”
On the way home I managed to put an arrow in a woodcock, and Jamie shot the fluff off a rabbit, which was all she talked about when we made it back to the little barn where all us wolf-girls huddled around the hearth.
That night I dreamed the darkness of space. The glare of full sun on those solar panels. Blinks of light flashing from one satellite to another, transmitting data as if to say,
Hello. I miss you.
I dreamed whole lives of people – people from the old days. Cameras, in their cars and in their schools, watched fights with lovers, watched sudden crunches of metal that ended in screaming and sirens.
I hiked up the ridge to the satellite the next day, on my way to check the trap lines. “What is it you want to make me see?” I asked it. “You’re trying to get me thinking there’s nothing worth saving in our world?”
I aimed a kick at its front panel of lights and switches, stopping short with a couple inches to spare. Nothing moved, nothing lit up. There was nothing to make me think it had heard me.
The trap lines were empty. I kept walking, not sure what I was looking for until my feet led me to Lynette’s door.
“I found something yesterday,” I said as I was shaking the snow off my boots. “Up in the hills when I took the new girl hunting.”
“Good something, bad something?”
Lynette cut me a slab of apple cake, spread over thick with butter. I wolfed it in two bites and it caught in my throat, stuck to my tongue. In these dark corners of February I almost forgot the memory of sweetness. Her head tilted in disapproval, but she gave me another piece.
“Don’t know good or bad, but it’s giving me strange dreams.” My eyes kept wandering to the hand-woven table mats; I was trying to imagine myself in a life like this one, the kind of life that a wolf-girl could make for herself after leaving her pack. Even in the winters when every thought sharpened around warmth and food, I didn’t know who I’d be without them. “A satellite came down. All in one piece, not all burnt up like they usually are.”
“What did the others say?”
“Nothing yet. I asked the other girl to keep it quiet.”
She leaned back, arms crossed on top of her belly, and gave me a small nod.
“Doesn’t seem like the kind of thing I can figure out on my own, though.”
“No need to untangle the whole thing right away,” Lynette said.
That made my teeth itch. Two years ago, when I was new in the pack and nothing but sharp angles, I’d have laid into her. Our years in the wilderness, the winters that we shivered through, the trance-bonfires where we tried to speak with those voices up there in the sky – that was all so we could find some kind of a truce or an understanding with the minds that lived in the satellites. Maybe this was our only chance to do something about it. But I had no idea what that something might look like.
As I was putting my winter things back on I couldn’t help turning back to her. “You miss it?”
“Always.” A pause, and then: “It wasn’t ever my intention to pass the reins over to Stella. But it takes teeth to lead a pack.”
I stood there, frozen in the middle of lacing my boots. It hadn’t ever crossed my mind that I could’ve fought for this.
“I don’t know what to do about the satellite.”
“There’s no one who can tell you that.”
I didn’t have any answer but the crunch of my boots over the old leaves and the snow.
#
A few days later, Stella showed up with a deer haunch she’d got from the pack upriver from us, and in the middle of all the celebrating announced, “There’s a satellite come down in the hills.”
I said nothing. I worked my knife down the back of the deer’s leg, separating skin from muscle and tendon. But Jamie got a look on her face like the vole under the hawk’s gaze, while it’s still too scared to run.
“You knew about this,” Stella said.
She barely moved her head in a way that didn’t mean either yes or no.
I spent too long thinking, deciding, then said, “I told her not to talk.”
“You didn’t think this was important to tell the rest of us?”
Stella took two steps toward me and at the same time I was thinking that she was my friend, that she was a good pack leader, I was thinking about the knife in my hand that was slicing through skin.
“Maybe too important to jump all over it right away.”
“Is that up to you to decide?”
I gripped the deer’s ankle and handed it to her without a word. Most of the blood had drained away or clotted, but the tissue over the muscles was still slick, barely warm with the animal’s heat.
I thought I knew something about being in a pack by then. You snarled at each other and you bared your teeth and when it was done you abided by what the pack leader said. Because it was where you belonged. If you stayed down in the village, or if you stayed by yourself, you didn’t get to hear the echoes of what goes through the satellites’ minds as they drifted across the sky. All of us had made that decision over and over, even on the days when we wished we were home.
The other girls looked at me like they were sniffing out the wind currents. Like I was, maybe, not the right friend to have. That night I found my own lonely corner for sleeping, and buried myself in the straw until it covered me over entirely. I dreamed I floated in the sky. Looked down on the villages of Cambodia or Laos or – different cities and countries, by now, from the ones in the encyclopedias from the old days.
I was going to lose this.
I was going to lose a thing I didn’t even understand. Was there a mind in there at all? Or was it a mind like the filaments of a spider-web, that only made sense with all its pieces reaching out to each other, working as one?
I imagined myself in the sky, blinking my strange heart to my siblings, and then tossed out of my orbit, flung to earth, alone.
#
In a single-file line we marched up the ridge. The morning sun glinted hard on the ice that had scabbed over the snow. We were armed with what we had found in the barn, and in the other caches and lockboxes: crowbars and screwdrivers and knives and even a chainsaw, powered by the little bits of gasoline we could occasionally scavenge for emergencies.
“What do we need a chainsaw for?” I said to no one in particular, trailing behind.
“Are you getting anywhere talking to it?” Stella asked. “The other pack didn’t. If we can take it apart. If we can see the guts of the thing. I don’t know.”
I couldn’t even argue with her. I was curious, too, and angry. The satellites had killed children, destroyed power plants and oil wells, destroyed the era – long before my own memories – when you could put your clothes to dry in a machine instead of praying for a sunny day, when you didn’t have to spend all of the fall chopping up wood to heat you through the winter. And we didn’t even know why. They didn’t feel pain, or sorrow, or anything. Right?
Only, when we got over the ridge and caught the first glimpse of the solar panels washed in light, there was something that changed. It was the look that crossed our faces when an owl’s wingbeats blotted out the moon, when we stumbled upon the elk with her little twin calves. Jamie dropped her screwdriver, and though she scrambled after it right away like it was a mistake, it looked to me like doubt.
The other girls tried to gather themselves up and working together, they hauled the satellite over to where they could get in there with their tools and their knives. They crowded in around it until I had an excuse to step back, stand guard, sometimes glancing over to see what they discovered, but when I did I saw nothing but the backs of five heads, kitted out in hats their mothers had knit or headbands their sisters had woven.
There was a groaning shriek, and the front panel came loose. It took five girls together, with their fingers all hooked underneath it, to shimmy it away from the case of the satellite.
I had to pull Jamie away, at last, to get a look inside. A tangle of wires and cases and lights gone dark. All of it mysterious, all of it full of secrets that the rest of us would never uncover. These girls, hovering, nervous, still hungry for the wolf-girl stories whispered between them as children.
“I wanted to do better by it.”
“It’s not a person,” Stella said. “It’s a broken machine. And it’s useless to us like this.”
“Useless if it’s hacked into bits, too.”
“It’s my pack,” Stella said, but we were all looking among ourselves now like we weren’t quite sure if it was anyone’s.
It took teeth, to lead a pack.
I broke my eyes away from the bulk of folded metal. “I’m going up to check the trap lines. I could use some extra hands.”
I started walking. With my rabbit-fur hood up I could only see in front of my face, and I knew I would lose if I turned to see who was following me. I could hear the big river in the distance, the one that hadn’t frozen over yet, and the “dee-dee-dee” of the chickadees looking for crumbs. And softly, like a fragile and untrustworthy thing, the sound of small boots on the snow.

Emily Horner

 

 

snowstorm-002

Time on the Side of the Road. Madeline Cross.

26 Dec

Time on the Side of the Road

They don’t fit one bit. They never have. His toes are all curled in on each other and he’s sure the nail on one of his toes is cutting into another toe and he must be bleeding. He bends over to untie the laces. Holding on to one of the heels, he tugs, wriggling his foot until the leather gives a little. With a final pull his hot, crumpled foot comes free of the boot. He repeats the process with the other foot. With both boots dangling from the laces in his hands, he swings them around once, twice, a third time, let’s go of the laces, and watches as they fly high up in the air, landing on the other side of the road with a double thump. He takes off his socks too and it’s like peeling off a layer of skin. He was right – one toe is crusty with blood. Both his little toes are so crushed against the others they don’t really resemble toes anymore, just little lumps on the side of his feet. He sits down on the raised bank on the roadside and lifts up his legs so that he can feel the grass against the broken skin of his feet. He pushes his toes into the dirt.
Where is he? He sinks deeper into the grass and wildflowers. He doesn’t catch himself. He is shaded by the branches of a sycamore tree growing in the field behind and slightly above him. The road itself is more of a country lane, wide and pot-holed. On the opposite side thistles and nettles aggressively climb the bank, but growing between and around his fingers there are only celandines and cow parsley. The lane bends its way between flat farmland. In all directions a perfectly stitched quilt of quadrangle fields spreads itself. The odd tree, older than the fences and hedgerows, stubbornly ruptures the pattern.
He thinks about how he got there. He tries to visualise the route he’s taken, or where it even began, but working backwards doesn’t help. He stares across the tarmac at his boots.
“What are you doing?” A woman and boy appear around the bend. They are walking slowly, moving their feet in time with each other, equally considered expressions on their strikingly flat faces. They must be mother and son. They have the same ash blonde hair and thin mouths.
“I’m resting,” Lah replies, though he isn’t sure whether that’s accurate.
He had been walking for as long as he could remember, no differently to anybody else, until he had stumbled on the pothole that the women and boy just sidestepped. The thought had come to him without ceremony, without thunder or lightning: Just stop.
The boy tilts his head curiously. “Resting?”
“Resting,” the woman repeats.
“Yes, resting,” Lah offers.
“You’re a young man,” she says, as if this means something. Her expression has become hostile, breaking up her flat features in a menacing, reptilian way. Lah’s seen that expression somewhere before, directed at someone else. She takes the boy’s hand in hers and picks up pace. He watches their backs until they turn a corner and there is nothing more to see.

People begin to pass by regularly. They are mostly young men, long-limbed and full of purpose. Some of them don’t react to Lah at all. Maybe they don’t see him, or don’t know what they’re seeing if they do. He watches them and can’t settle on pity or envy. He studies their clothes and haircuts and shoes, mentally giving himself a point for every man wearing a tie or with stiff wax in his hair. It passes the time, though he is not worried about that. He is worried about jealousy. It’s jealousy he doesn’t want to feel. Each time he is left alone again he turns his attention back to his feet and feels only the pain dissolving, leaving no room to feel anything else.
A man comes by who Lah immediately senses isn’t like the rest. He’s closer to middle-aged, with a steady walk, unfaltering smile, and cheeks as round and pink as small apples. Carrying a walking stick in one hand, he looks Lah right in the eye as he approaches. Everything about him is bright and capable. He slows down, seeming not to mind about it, and prods Lah’s discarded boots with his stick. “Are these yours, my man?”
“Yes, they’re mine.”
“What a wonderful thought – taking them off like that. How do they feel?”
“My feet?”
“Yes, yes, man!” He cries animatedly, almost stopping completely but continuing to step up and down on the spot.
“They feel freer.”
“Wow, what a wonderful thought. So you’ve stopped have you?”
“Yes.”
“How did that come about?”
“Just a thought.”
“Unfortunate to have a poor pair of boots, some are born better equipped for life than others aren’t they? No damn fairness about it, no fairness about it at all. See my boots – beautiful creatures, practically alive. I swear sometimes they make me bounce.”
Lah smiles but he is still unsure of himself and his fingers dig into the earth nervously. He eyes the man’s boots. They are made from a velvety material, moleskin maybe, and dyed forest green. The soles are at least an inch thick.
“Would you like a sandwich?” The man asks.
“Yes, I would,” Lah says, the memory of hunger replacing his anxiety.
The man rummages around in his rucksack without breaking the rhythm of his steps, pulls out a sandwich wrapped in Clingfilm and hands it to Lah.
“Will you stop with me?” Lah chances, unwrapping the sandwich.
“What a thought, man, what a thought! That would be a blast.”
“So you will?”
“Oh no, no I can’t, lovely idea though. I’m glad it’s caught you, but it’s not for me.”
“Have you ever stopped?”
“Not yet, but I’ve met those who have. Though I must say they’ve all been much older than you, on their last boots shall we say. You on the other hand seem rather young?”
Lah chews and frowns.
“There’s always something new around the corner,” the man continues, waving his stick in the air. “I’ve been told I’m an optimist. I’m glad you like the sandwich. I’ll leave you another before I go.” He sticks his free hand back into his rucksack.
Lah swallows a lump of cheese and can feel it rolling down his oesophagus like a stone as he tries to think of something to say that will make the man stay longer. But the man puts another sandwich on the grass beside him and then grasps his hand to shake it. “Good man. I’ll be thinking of you here.” And then he turns and carries on, humming slightly, leaving Lah staring at the terrible boots where they lie on the road. The man was right; they should have been better and had let him down from the very start.

The evening is warm and muggy. Lah eats the second sandwich and lies back in the grass. He is just starting to doze off when the air beside him changes temperature. He opens his eyes and for a second all he can see is a smudge of dark orange blocking out the sky and the setting sun. Then the smudge turns and the white side of a face appears with a trail of freckles riding its cheekbone.
She’s the most perfect thing he’s ever seen. And she has stopped completely.
He swings himself upright. “What are you doing?”
“What are you doing?”
“I’ve stopped.”
“So have I,” she says, her eyes laughing at him. They are big and beetle-black.
“Why?”
“Because I saw you, and you looked happy, and I wanted that too. It’s taken me so long to catch up with you. Do you remember the last time we saw each other?”
“I remember, Bea.”
It isn’t true. He doesn’t remember the time or the place, but he does remember her. Her name comes to him as though he was already thinking of it before she appeared. He recognises everything about her and nothing at all. Her hair smells like chamomile tea.
He wishes he could think of the perfect think to say, the most perfect thing ever said. He’s never been taught the words though. He’s never been taught anything. All he knows how to do is walk. He looks down and sees that she has taken off her boots and socks and they are now lying on the ground beside his own. Her feet are small and pink and they aren’t as tortured as his. The skin seems new. She is watching a robin on the opposite bank. Lah kisses the freckles on her cheek. She leans into him as he does it, and he keeps his mouth against her skin, not moving his lips, listening to the life in her. Her voice is low and he hears it in his chest. “They don’t know what they’re missing.”
She motions to a couple walking by, a good ten years older, with weathered faces and grey in their hair. They glance over at Lah and Bea darkly. Lah studies the cracks in their boots. They don’t slow down, becoming silhouettes against the flat skyline, then fading altogether.
“I’ve been waiting for this,” Bea says.
“Have you?”
“I guess I didn’t know it before.”
“It just came to me,” Lah replies. “Like a slap in the face, but not as violent as that.” He tries to think. “No, it wasn’t like that at all. I don’t know what it was like.”
She laughs at him but nothing about her makes him feel ashamed.
“Come with me,” she tugs at his arm and they scramble over the bank into the field. It feels strange to move and put the weight back on his feet. The ground is doughy and slightly wet where the sun hasn’t reached. She stops at the trunk of the sprawling sycamore and sits with her back to it. She guides his body and he fits around her like a coat. They are still close to the roadside, but it seems to him that it’s getting further and further away in their minds, and that the people that walk it are walking in a different world.
When it gets dark he can’t see the freckles on her face and arms which he had been creating pathways with, so he turns to the stars. At walking pace it always seemed to him that the stars moved as he did, constantly crossing the sky, unable to pause. But lying there with Bea in his arms, they do as he does. They stay in place. He can see the patterns they form, the shapes and worlds they hold together. “They’re so still,” he whispers.
“They’re moving,” Bea says, with her head against his chest. “They’re just so far away you can’t see it.”
“No,” Lah closes his eyes. “They’ve stopped.”

When he wakes with the sun he knows that something has changed. Bea is standing over him.
“I need to keep going,” she says.
“What?”
She looks at him pityingly and he feels his face flush.
“I’m not ready,” she turns to the road.
He stands up and his feet ache with cramp. “You’ve already stopped though. You’ve done it.”
“No, I haven’t, not really. It looks that way, I know it looks that way, but in my head it’s different.”
Lah doesn’t have enough words. He could trip her up and keep her there. He could hold her. He has arms and legs and strength. He stares at the bend in the road. He tries to imagine what’s beyond it, tries to make himself care. But he doesn’t. He knows somehow that this has all happened before and that it will only happen again. There is nothing he can do about it.
“I’m happy for you,” she says.
“I don’t want to be alone.”
“You won’t be.”
“Yes, I will. I’m always different.”
“You’re better.”
“That’s not what it feels like.”
“But it’s what is.”
She has already put her boots on. They have miles left in them, as if they’ve never walked a step. She slides down the bank on to the road. A crowd of people are passing beneath the early sun, and she merges between them seamlessly, until all Lah can see is a smudge of dark orange between the shoulders of people he doesn’t want to know.
When she’s gone she doesn’t fade from his mind like the others did. He doesn’t question whether he ever saw her at all. The imprint of her body can still be seen in the grass. He can feel her hair between his fingers and taste the salt on her mouth. It’s as if she’s still with him but she isn’t. He paces up and down until the cramp leaves his feet and then realises what he’s doing. He will not give in. He sits down. The pain in his chest is overwhelming. It is nothing like the pain in his feet. It’s as if his heart is lighter in weight. It flutters and rises, intending to throw itself out of his body. He’s terrified he won’t be able to control it and thumps his chest with his fists. He tries to cry but nothing happens. When he screams at the road two children he hadn’t noticed break into a run. He collapses backwards.

The sky clouds over and everything is dulled. It is still warm, but in a muffled, too-close way. The browns and greys and tired greens could have poured from Lah’s own mouth if he had spoken any words. But he is lying on his back, prostrate, with no intention of ever moving again.
“Is it almost night?” An elderly man is standing on the road.
Lah makes to open his mouth but can’t.
“Have you stopped for the night? I lose track of time, and my eyesight isn’t what it was, so I can’t tell if this is darkness coming, or that type of day that just sits on your shoulders.”
Lah eases himself up on to his elbows. “No,” he manages. “It isn’t night.”
The man hesitates. “So you’ve stopped, even though it isn’t night?”
He is very old, with a white moustache that droops down on either side of a small mouth, whiskers protruding from his eyebrows. His whole appearance is rough and animal-like, and his boots are so worn that Lah can’t see if they even have soles.
“Yes, I’ve stopped,” Lah says. “And it isn’t night. I’ve been here since yesterday, at least, I think it was yesterday.”
“Do you know where we are?” The old man asks.
“No,”
“It could be the midlands?”
“Or the lowlands.”
 “What a flat country. Will you help me into the field?”
Lah struggles to his feet. He hadn’t realised just how lonely he was, or how much he wanted to escape it. He takes the old man’s arm in his and gently supports him to get his footing in the grass. They climb across the bank into the field and the old man sinks against the sycamore.
“This is it,” he says.
Lah stares at him and tries to imagine what he’s feeling.
“This is it,” he says again.
“How long have you been walking?”
The old man stares at Lah with a curious expression. “I have no idea.”
 “Why are you looking at me like that?”
“How did you stop?” The old man asks.
Lah would like to give a better answer than he has so far come up with, but there doesn’t seem to be one yet. “I just stopped. It was what I wanted.”
“It isn’t hard for me. For me, it’s harder to keep going, but that’s different.”
“I think I was tired.”
“You were tired?”
“I was on my own.”
“You have no idea.” The old man yawns exaggeratedly.
“There’s no need to be like that.” Lah suddenly feels like a child again. He has a vague memory of his family gathered around him, laughing. He can’t pinpoint why, but he remembers feeling small, with an even smaller ball of red heat inside him, steadily growing. What was it he had done that was so ridiculous? Why did it feel like this was a regular occurrence, like everything he did was odd, laughable? It wasn’t a memory he wanted, even in its half-formed state, but perhaps it explained why he wasn’t with his family now – why he was alone.
“This a good tree,” the old man says.
“Is that why you’re here – for the tree?
“Can you appreciate a good tree?”
Lah doesn’t answer; crossing his arms over his chest and starting to hope the old man will get up and leave. He didn’t stop for this. Perhaps loneliness is better – better than being judged, better than being laughed at.
 “I’m teasing you,” the old man says.
“I realise.”
“Maybe you’ve just been walking alone too long. Try and remember how to take a joke.”
“Wisdom is it?”
The old man grins sheepishly, folds his hands on his lap and closes his eyes. Lah smiles too, no longer angry. He wants to be more patient. He doesn’t want to be left alone again.
“Does your wisdom stretch to answers? Or is that too much to hope for?”
“I’m sorry. It’s not as easy as that.”
“No, it never is.”
The old man is drifting away and into sleep, his words softer. “I really did take a liking to this tree though. I think it might be the best tree I’ve ever seen, and isn’t that a thing to be able to say?”
Lah doesn’t reply. The old man’s moustache has spread out against his cheeks. For a while he taps his fingers on his lap, but then he stops and Lah can tell that he is wholly asleep.
Lah closes his eyes too and lies back. He visualises himself on the road, picking up his boots and swinging them over his shoulder. He imagines walking bare foot along the tarmac, feeling the dirt and grit climbing between his toes. The sun will come out, surely, and he will feel it on his face. People will pass as they have always done, and maybe they won’t notice him, maybe one person might smile and say hello. That man, the man with the velvety boots, he will be ahead, never walking too fast, never in a rush, always with something to say to a stranger. And the road will widen, the people will fade. Further ahead, in a copse of bluebells and wild garlic, Bea will be in a heap on the ground, crying for the loss of him, her dark orange hair covering her white face. No one will have stopped to help her, to ask if she’s ok. But Lah will, Lah will not think twice before stopping and sitting beside her. He will take off her shoes and carry them for her. He will hold her hand and lead her bare foot on to the road. He will say sorry for what he has already done and what he has not yet done.
The footsteps on the road die down. The afternoon is no different to the morning, muted and unmoving. Lah rolls on to his side so that he is facing the old man who still has his eyes closed and his hands folded over his stomach. But where before each breath had moved the soft white hairs of his moustache, there are none now. Lah crawls over to him, looking down on to the old face. He places his hand on his cheek and feels how the skin has already become cold and dry like paper, then he moves his hand to the old man’s silent chest.
He stands up and stares at the horizon, trying once more to imagine what’s around the bend in the road, trying to imagine that it could mean something to him. There could be something. There must be something, but he thinks backwards for clues that will help him and there is nothing to fix on to. Except Bea’s face, the bright bone white of her skin, a red-breasted robin, a cheese sandwich, old boots. These solid things on the side of a road.
And for now there is also a dead man.
Lah bends over and carefully unties the laces of the old man’s boots. He pulls them off and holds them for a moment, feeling how light and temporary they are, then he throws them high into the air. They land on the road beside his own with barely a sound. The old man has no socks on. He looks childlike, lying there with his free toes pointing up to the sky, traces of a smirk on his face.

Madeline Cross

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wherever you are, we wish you love

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