The Butter Stone – Mary-Jane Holmes
Outside my window, a palimpsest of snow, moles home-school their children in the art of house-building, arctic terns drone the moors and one unidentified wader sits on a capstone scoping for worms. Not a common snipe or oyster catcher – my usual neighbours. Who was it that recently twittered ‘our neighbours have been cancelled?’ Bigger, chevron-winged, cryptic brown and black. I’ve looked it up – dismissed dunlin, dotterel, sanderling, redshank … a woodcock? Perhaps – but in a land devoid of trees? Perhaps in a world gone mad so in this ménage rustique of sociability and solitude, the imagination soars for something more exotic – a long-billed dowitcher from Siberia, a rostratula from Africa, a tutuwiki from New Zealand. Not that last one – it needs to be extant. That word has so much more heft now doesn’t it? I’ll plump for the dowitcher. My father (no longer extant) worked in a brewery in Novosibirsk. I wonder if he ever saw a dowitcher feeding on the banks of the Ob? All I know is he flew there every month with an airline called Crash – but to fly, the longing for it, to be lifted out of all this, to be like the clocks, to spring forward into the dog days of a summer, salad days unvaried accept by accident. Salad – I’ve ordered Cut-and-Come-Again lettuce, and early seed potatoes that I’ll chit and bury in the soil left by the mole’s excavations, like my grandparents did ‘earthing up’ their Casablancas and Maris Pipers in another time of crisis and now the sun still seemingly in its winter quarantine, marches its slow gait across the horizon, appearing suddenly, luminous as fever, above Goldsborough’s cap of gritstone, over the Herdwicks and Swaledale flocks self-shielding from the three day north-easterly the Met office had predicted. Oh, to be able to forecast, to grasp some reassurance from our modern-day oracles! What would Pythia make of our modelling and algorithms? If we burn laurel and barley, pour cold water over a goat to see if it shudders, would Apollo tell us what is to be done, or perhaps his son Asclepius, god of medicine or perhaps his goddess granddaughters? Hygeia, Panacea. Goddess. God. Godwit, that is what that bird is sitting on the wall, once thought of as ‘the daintiest dish in England’, its eggs a trophy for any Victorian collector’s display cabinet. The eggs I will go and collect are from a more sustainable source – pure breed Marans – left by the farmer down the road, in a small metal tin, each dozen with a happy face felt-penned on its box and I will leave my money sprayed with a 3:1 mixture of surgical spirit and water in return, like the villagers once did four miles from here in the Great Plague of 1636, where they picked up fresh wares and left their money in vinegar in the single cup mark set in the weathered rock, that came to be known as the Butter Stone.
Elephants in Silhouette – Mark Sadler
Anton came knocking on me door, absolutely over the moon, on account of a herd of elephants, that roam in the vicinity, having been reported as gone down with a pachyderm variant of polio, meaning they all had to be culled.
“We going to hunt thee mighty mammoth,” he says/sings. Already he’s unlocking me gun safe with the key to his safe. That lazy sod, Fisher, wot makes them, gave them all identical locks. It opens out like a drinks cabinet. Can’t fault the craftsmanship. That’s all done in Thailand; the inlay and the internal compartments. All Fisher does is ship the pieces over and add a few finishing touches.
Okay, so the hunting licences will cost more than you’ll get back from selling off the parts of the animal, even when you factor-in the traditional-medicine barrel-scrapers wot will will buy anything. You do it for the sport, don’t you? When was the last time anyone got to legally hunt elephants in this neck of the woods?
Anton fired up the sat-tracker. We piled into his truck. Well, when we got there, mate, it was all sick animals far as the eye could see; staggering about; some already toppled over, and the hyenas gearing up for a big feed. It weren’t no hunt.
Cropsie was there with his band of men, wot been paid by the National Park Service to carry out the cull.
He says: “You can take first swing of the bat if you want, mate.”
Then, cos he can’t pass on an opportunity to get a dig in, he looks me long-bore up and down an’ he says: “Nice little poaching toy you got there,” knowing full well I ain’t poached more than a hen’s egg in me life.
Jason looks at me an’ says: ‘I can’t do it mate.’
We drive back to the parks office. Even get a full-refund on our hunting licences. Next day, the herd comes rumbling past in a convoy of covered lorries.
I moved to Amsterdam the same year. Things was getting too hot where I was. The Chapples got butchered on their ranch. I mean literally butchered. I could see the way the wind was blowin’, bringin’ the fire to me door.
I was telling the story about the elephants to this girl here the other night. She’s an animal rights type. Doesn’t like hunting. Hates big game hunters, even when I told her the licence money goes into conservation. She screams at me for five minutes. When she runs out of words, she pitches me own drink in me face! The worst people are the ones wot are so privileged, they don’t see their feet treading down on the backs of others.
Me and Jason was proper pissed that night, staggering along Geldersekade, like a pair of elephants with polio trying not to tumble into the canal: The silhouettes of men who should have fallen down a long time ago, holding each other up by accident.
The Pedestrian Underpass – Sebnem Sanders
Mama told me not to go into the pedestrian underpass. She said bad people live there, in the darkness. On the way to Mama’s kiosk, it was hot at noon, and I forgot to wear my hat. One could cook eggs on the pavement. Sweating and thirsty, I sipped water from the bottle I filled from the tap at home, while covering my head with one hand to protect myself from the fierce sunrays.
Then I saw a girl. Older, taller than me, heading down the steps of the underpass. Her sundress was similar to mine, even its belt tied with a bow at the back. Her haircut exactly the same. Perhaps she also had it styled at Joe’s on the high-street. Sunbeams followed her down the labyrinth of steps. I felt safe and tailed her into the fading light.
At the very bottom, darkness swallowed her. Goose pimples on my arms, I thought I’d lost her. Once my eyes adjusted to the inky dark, I spotted her walking down the bleak corridor. I heard noises. Guttural and harsh, they terrified me. I didn’t see who or what pulled her aside. It happened too quickly, but I ran forward, saw them tearing off her clothes. They did bad things to her, and I couldn’t move. I couldn’t move.
At last, I screamed at the top of my voice. They came after me. I flung the glass bottle at them, and when they grabbed me, I bit their arms with my sharp teeth. Somehow, I freed myself from the demons of darkness, and ran down the tunnel like rabid in flight, and up the steps towards the street. Breathless, I dashed into the daylight and found a policeman who listened to me. He followed me to the underpass and said, “Wait here. I’ll be back!”
I waited and waited, and saw the young girl being carried outside on a stretcher. Thank you, God, for hearing me. She’s alive, Mama. I saved her life.
Sorry, Mama, for not listening to your advice. I’ll never ever use the underpass again. I love helping you sort out the glossy magazines on the news-stand. I learn so much from reading the bold titles and looking at the pictures. Please, don’t be angry with me, Mama. I’ll be careful next time.
My head is bursting. I’m tired now. I need a story from you before I go to sleep. I love it when you read to me and tell me tales from foreign lands. Please, don’t cry, Mama. I’m here, lying next to you. Can’t you see me? Read to me, Mama, so I can rest in peace.
Sebnem E. Sanders lives on the Southern Aegean coast of Turkey and writes short and longer works of fiction. Her stories have appeared in various online literary magazines, and two anthologies. Her collection of short and flash fiction stories, Ripples on the Pond , was published in December 2017. More information can be found at her website where she shares some of her work: https://sebnemsanders.wordpress.com/
Wrinkles – K E Warner
We had a connection, my Gran and me. I loved her quirky eccentricities, she loved my malleable adulation. Gran was an eclectic product of the Irish potato famine, the Great War, and the roaring twenties, me a spin-off of TV dinners, the assassination of JFK, and free love. One would wonder what we could have in common.
‘Kim’, she would state – Gran never simply said anything, she stated everything – ‘Kim, you need to use eye cream. Every day. Start now. I know you’re only eleven, but this is important.’ My Gran had the most beautiful skin. Soft as butter, white as cream, and as plump as a cow’s full udder. I must have inherited my skin from my father’s side. But I tried eye cream. Well, not real eye cream, I used petroleum jelly and woke up most mornings with a film over my eyeballs. But damned if I was going to get wrinkles around the eyes. I was going to have skin like my Gran’s.
One day I arrived at her farm for a visit, hopped out of the car and before I was within ten feet of her she gripped her throat, rolled her eyes, and appeared to be in the throes of death. ‘Don’t come any closer. You were smoking. That is a disgusting filthy habit. And it will give you wrinkles.’ My fourteen-year-old self knew there could be only one response. ‘No gran, not me, my friends were smoking. It’s just on my clothes.’ Yeah. I stopped smoking that day. Not sure if it was the threat of wrinkles or the disappointment in her voice.
She had the voice of an angel too. She sang with the Sweet Adelines in Winnipeg. I used to love going to watch her sing. When I was sixteen they were going to perform at the Winnipeg Concert Hall. For Winnipeg – that was huge! I was supposed to be part of a group of cheerleaders – all granddaughters of the ladies in the choir. We rehearsed for weeks. I never missed a practice – even though my part was limited to approximately six seconds. She must have warned me a million times to ‘Never miss a rehearsal and never, ever be late – it’s disrespectful of everyone’s time when you are late.’ When it was finally time for the big show, I hung around the dressing room waiting for her, asking everyone else if they had seen her. When she finally arrived, I heard her before I saw her. Her friends must have told her that I was going to rub it in that she was late. ‘Well, she wouldn’t if she knew her great-grandmother had died and I was getting her off to the morgue.’ I slumped on the floor and cried. She found me in tears and stated, ‘Don’t cry. You’ll get wrinkles.’ To this day, I am rarely late for anything.
Gran has been gone for many years now. I still feel connected. Most often it is when I look in the mirror and see the wrinkles.
Isolation – Michelle Walshe
It’s not so different to the way it was before. The front door kept them out, those enemies of peace and solitude – people, chatter, noise. The air inside the house embraced me, settled quietly on my skin. Soothing.
Suddenly, there is a terror is in the air. The front door is sullen, forbidding. People, chatter, noise are ghosts. The air inside the house scratches my skin. Panic comes in waves at the thought of the particles of pestilence bombarding each other all around me.
Do they bounce off each other like dust motes in the sunlight and scatter far and wide or do they congregate, their coronas entwining, binding them together, making them stronger, ready for invasion? They resemble falling snowflakes but is each one a different shape like a true snowflake or are they uniform, like soldiers, identikit, prepared for maximum impact?
Do those spikes help to burrow into the soft, spongy lung tissue of their new-found hosts? Do they squirt poison or are they suction points for deeper attachment? Do they assist the march through the airways and arteries, spinning their continuous cartwheels, silent and invisible until you are unable to breathe? This scares me most. The reports of a vice like grip on the chest, a burning feeling in the lungs.
Victim’s bodies feel like they are on fire inside. Outside, Rome burns. And the world. Like the ancient landmarks that rose to the surface of the earth during the heatwave of two years ago, old truths rise from history. Mistakes are doomed to repetition. Society is fragile. Economy even more so. Crisis reveals the best and worst of humanity. Fear spreads faster than fire. Behavioural scientists have case studies in real time. Herds are interesting. Especially when they don’t have immunity. Planet Earth can recover, if only we took the same measures to save her as we are taking to save ourselves.
It seems much can be accomplished in an emergency that is impossible in real life. Fakery abounds. The spin has never felt so spun. Our house of cards is tumbling, card by card. Every day as a another one flutters away a new fissure in the land is exposed. The way we treat the people who sew the fabric of our society stands in stark comparison to the way we treat the ones who consume it.
Speechwriters look to the past for inspiration, spouting lines ripped from previous orators. The current leaders trot them out in solemn tones with grave expressions in minimalist surroundings. They say we are at war. We are. At war with ourselves. With our bodies. With our habits. With our preconceptions and our need for distraction.
For it is distraction that has led us here. Too distracted to be hygienic, too distracted to notice the elderly, the supermarket workers, the health care professionals, too self-absorbed to notice the wilful destruction of the planet.
Will this bring us back to simplicity, to nature, to family, to better communication? We’re being told to stay at home, but do we really understand where that is?
Michelle Walshe is a writer from Dublin. She began writing in 2017 and has been published in The Irish Times, The Irish Examiner, The Telegraph, The Sunday Independent, The Gloss and Woman’s Way magazines and in an anthology, Teachers Who Write. She has won bursaries, residencies and writing prizes, most recently the Iceland Writers Retreat.
Thoughts On Pandem(ic)onium – Sara Hodgkinson
Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Probably not because none of us share a brain and none of us are psychic (or are we?) but then we might all be thinking something similar because let’s face it there’s one main thing that is hanging about us all like a terrible smell – a deadly one, even deadlier than the dog’s worst guff – and no it’s not Brexit (for once). Is there anything stranger than the pandemonium of a pandemic where you can’t actually SEE anything happening other than in the figures and data that the news spews out every evening around five when you’re normally cooking your tea but Boris is now there bumbling his way through yet another emergency conference? I don’t think so, but then we’re only at the beginning of what will likely be weeks of this or months even, though months are incomprehensible when all I can see is the end of today and curling up in bed to slip silently into delicious dreams of all the things that Tesco couldn’t give me when I dared to venture out for a dash through the aisles. What do we even do if toilet roll runs out? I’m all for cutting down on waste, but WASTE from US is not something you really have much choice in and cleaning it up is far easier with Andrex on your side. ALTHOUGH. When we were in Nepal there was less faffing about with paper and more squatting and shaking so perhaps that’s the way forward? And in Asia there’s the whole hand thing which most of us have two of so I guess there shouldn’t be a problem, and I’m more worried anyway about never getting going again because once you’ve stopped – stopped, slowed, broken the usual routine, started to get used to doing less – how do you start up again and get back to the pace of before? What if we can never return to how it all used to be but then do we really want to anyway because wasn’t there all that concern over how modern society is toxic and we’re all doing too much and there’s a looming mental health crisis and so on? There’s something to be said for the slowness and the silence that comes from waking without an alarm to absolutely nothing – no cars going past on their way to work, no idle chatter of kids on their way to school, just quietness that I never really realised wasn’t there until it was and now I sort of like it, really. Maybe this is a chance to start again, in a society where we all actually care a bit more. Then again, maybe there won’t be enough of us left to do that anyway! I’m not being flippant, it’s just a thought, but maybe – maybe – we’ll be changed in some way that makes us all, on some level, slightly better human beings than we were Before It Came.
A Brief Sojourn – Emily Harrison
You wonder how old you’ll be when this is all over – this being the pandemic but also this being the altered life you now have to lead which, in any case, is a pointless, fruitless thing to wonder because you imagine there will be no ending. No one is going to write THE END. Although they’ll probably say it on the news and well, maybe they will write it, but they’ll most definitely be wrong because these things don’t really end, do they? They reduce and we return but the memory bones and breath of it endure for however long eternity lasts. How long does eternity last? Erm. Perhaps a better question is how long does the daily invasion of information last? The data, the intelligence – the lack thereof, the charting of death; too much to ingest. It makes you feel sick, just like all that pasta that’s been hoarded in kitchen cupboards. You can’t eat pasta because it makes your stomach tighten like the taut turn of a screw. Unlucky for some. You suppose it’s better to feel something than nothing. That’s what happens when information is an onslaught – information that is horrific and scary and do you know someone that will die from this? Probably. In the blitz of information, you’ve started to become numb to its daunting fissure and your protection policy is to simply retreat into the great vastitude of your brain where nothing is felt, and nothing is gained, just a plain sailing ignorance of avoidance tactics and escapism.
It’s like the time you weren’t sure if you had cancer.
Mum sat next to you as the consultant spoke and you assume her brain was reeling with feeling and thought and dread and terror and she’ll confirm it if you ask but for some reason, you stared at the consultant as he said you would need a biopsy and felt nothing. Perhaps your brain levitated out of the room and your body stayed put – the body that maybe had cancer. It would’ve been in its throat. Maybe the body does have cancer, but you don’t know it yet. Oh fuck. Back away from that and to this, which is thinking about how old you’ll be which leads into questions about who you might be and what you might achieve which is to say that you’ll probably achieve living life – no mean feat, considering. Three years ago, you weren’t sure about living life, which is both a comfort and not – a sort of background noise to dwell upon and look back upon in moments when your mortality is hurled straight into your face like the blare of a police siren going out to fine someone for being outside longer than the government allotted time. Remember when you considered dying? An odd time. An awful time, in many ways. In most ways, actually. In all ways, truth be told.
You wonder how old you’ll be when this is all over. You hope you don’t figure it out.
Emily Harrison uses writing as an escape from reality and doesn’t drink enough water. She has had work published with Barren Magazine, Gone Lawn, Ellipsis Zine, Storgy, The Molotov Cocktail, Retreat West and Riggwelter Press to name a few. She can be found on Twitter at @emily__harrison
Featherweight – Kyle Tinga
When it came down to it, the only reason a human heart would ever be the same weight as a feather is if it was a damn heavy feather. Thoth knew this, Anubis knew it, even mightiest of all ye mighties Ra knew it. Then the question became where to source the feather, and that’s where all the ideas at the council dried up. The gods with feathers coughed and began to very politely shuffle back towards the temple entrance, while Ra rubbed his temples in a way that screamed “If I wasn’t the Supreme God then I’d be praying right now”.
“Right then, when we create humankind and judge their deeds, what feather do we weigh their hearts up against?”
A tentative hand was raised by Hathor, ready in all of her plumpness and finery, jingling and jiggling as it rose. “We could do one of those larger birds? You know, the ones that go around the liver of something or other in one of the Northern countries. Protoman, Promare, something of that nature. I’m sure a feather of that size would be heavy enough to give humankind some kind of advantage.”
“Still feather weight, innit?” That came from Sekhmet, arms folded across his chest and sharpened teeth gnashing and snarling. “And when it’s FEATHER weight it’s light as a FEATHER! Nobody’s going to come to the heavens which means nobody makes their way to us which means people will stop believing! Got to be a heavy one.”
“We could craft it out of precious metals. Gold and silver and suchlike.” The words came from an overgrown beetle, whose shining carapace was studded with diamonds and jewels of every size and colour. “That would make it suitably heavy for our purposes.”
“Then it would be a falsehood,” came the reply from Anubis in a low growl, his jackal’s jaw exposing elongated canines. “If we are weighing up the truth and sin within a human heart, it would taint the core of morality to use a fake feather.”
“What about sunbird?”
All eyes darted towards the speaker, her voice serene amidst the growing clamour. Mother Isis, mother of man and mother of the world, had her hands rested in her lap and a very small smile upon her face. “Sunbirds,” she replied, “Are truth and flame. Remember that they hold the weight of eternity in their feathers, and shed it as they’re reborn. So they are light and heavy in equal measure.”
At once whispers became chatter became yells of “Sunbird! Sunbird! SUNBIRD!” At last! A solution!
“All well and good. But,” said a no-nonsense Thoth, adjusting his spectacles with a rigid wingtip, “Where on earth do we find the sunbird?”
Ra blinked. Blinked again. Blinked thrice, and then laughed a full-bellied laugh that echoed throughout the desert dunes and palm trees. “Why, my dear Thoth, on the sun! And luckily for us, I believe I know exactly where.”
My Job to Remember – Michael Edwards
This limp I acquired cost the most of all. My left foot drags across sidewalks, floors and sunsets. Soles of my shoes scuff and abrade to the point of skin grazing rough concrete exfoliating the calloused bottom of everything. Limping is a symptom of trying to get somewhere. I can’t tell you where that is because I’m not there yet. Forget I said the thing about the limp. I’m walking fine, stride in time one leading to the next and I pace the room digging ruts in the same path like oxen at the millstone. I’m yoked to forget that linear is expected and radial, axial, actual work is looked down on. How to be blue collar begins with myth and ends with bills unpaid until each credit card juggles the chainsaws or falling batons blindfolded. This is the circus that you dreamt of running away to, the horizon and over the purple sky of twilight, dimmer than the last century and a sun sizzling fried eggs in August heat on the sidewalk, segmented, control joints, planned fractures where tree roots push up and tectonics of urban expansion and contraction, freeze-thaw – leaves pile up to elbows and rot. Cars disappear in leaf litter and trees send their seeds sprouting, humus, new earth, rich neglect, they would say extinction, extermination, self-determination, individuation. This last week or so the sky has bloomed like dandelions gone to seed and the spheres of the heaven are filled with fluffy parachutes swirling in gales of warm winter, snowless, creatureless – only the proliferation of weeds, of plants, of phloem and xylem. Sapwood bleeds through bark bursting, the high pressure pulse of Pacific forests, climatic shifts – birches so warm their sap rots in-place and punky wood is all that’s left as winds snap fragile limbs, milkless, decalcified, malnourished, hyperthermic entropy. Decay, waste, recycled and deposited. Injected, and this won’t make the cut. I can’t remember why I even started. The rains stopped months ago. The humid heat took over and the limp is back. The last man limping through detritus and logs decomposing, reanimating, vegetating. Well, if the last man is what I am, at least these plants will feed me. The last winter coat was sold for parts and the only thing I remember is the frost on the windshield when January chilled my fingers, blood rushing to the core, protecting vital organs and the north has become south and I’m never coming back. The last man on earth. Only the tops of pyramids peek out through the soil layer, coating the earth with fertile foundation from new life – plants have heartbeats they say. Water has a pulse and they synchronize to the tide’s ebb and flow and the mud we make of words that we used to sling at each other. And now I’m the last man on earth and it’s my job to remember, but there’s no one left to remind me how I got this limp.
Michael Edwards is a poet, writer and young dad living in Vancouver, BC. Follow him on Twitter at: twitter.com/michaelwrites1
Black Mirror – Mehreen Ahmed
I sat in front of a mirror. The many glaring lights fixed on its frame, enhanced my reflection on the mirror. I saw a masked face in white make-up paste. The make-up artist diligently applied colour dust with a small sponge on my dark skin. Eye make-up was the hardest to do.
“Take a closer look.” She held another mirror. It looked black. I saw a cinema. Of my mind. Of a stream. Of a monologue.
The winds were rough. In the early dawn, the door rattled in the stormy winds. I screamed and held on to the flimsy bed frame. On a summer’s day, The winds revved up like a car in the hands of a novice. Five years of age. I sat by the window. The winds knocked on the glass pane. Another morning. Some clouds had gathered. I opened the windows and a sudden gust of wind whipped my face as it passed through the hut. My hair blew wildly over my face, almost veiling it with a mass of dark locks. I looked at the distant sky and saw layers upon layers of dark clouds; each layer a different shade of grey. The little daisies down by the mountain stream, danced insanely in the ferocity of the winds. Poor yellow little souls and bleeding blades of grass. Then there was a knock on the door. They came back. There was a ship wreck off the peninsula. Couldn’t make it in the storm. How was I to endure that? Those faces of desperate sailors floated in the ocean of my eyes; their bodies floating. The gardens bled.
Who’s at the door? My son? Did you come back for me? Have you come for my soul. Oh God. The wooden door went off the latch. It flung apart. Crazy! The crazy winds. My hut seemed to be wrung out of its soil. The mountains green, but dark and grey today. Dark. Yes, pitched dark it
was too, when my unfledged 16 year old went away to the edge of the peninsula toward a faraway coral island.
The mountain spring. The fall from this height among the rocks and the craggy crevice. The rains lashed its spray across the – My son, my little boy, Are you even alive? Come back. But no drugs and overdose. The ship that drowned in that ever engulfing sea. Took away. The water. The ocean. This stream. How I miss you? Little baby. Little. No more. Down by the green valley, I see him running. I see him now and then, he vanishes. There he is again. Play. Play. Hide and seek. Don’t run to the ocean though. Come back. Come back. Dear child. There he comes now. Up the ragged hill he climbs back. He’s here. In my arms. Kisses and hugs. The ocean rises and falls. Boats passing through mountain ridges. Suddenly all falls apart. No boats. No ships, only the sounds of the raging seas.