The Cult of Weight – Mark Sadler

Newbon Manor occupies a lonely vantage point on north Yorkshire moorland, overlooking the hamlet of Little Sarling. The building is orientated peculiarly; it stands half turned away from the settlement, wilfully aloof amidst matted continents of dismal, aubergine-coloured heather that soak up the shadows of the passing clouds. The desolation of the surroundings is mirrored in the stark appearance of the hall itself; the sheer stone walls, blackened by centuries of windblown peat, and the austere, vacant windows, which reflect portions of the leaden skies and confer upon the property the forsaken air of a derelict.

The architect, Anthony Tyte, is a distant ancestor of mine. When I was a child, his portrait, evidently painted when he was long past his prime, was a disquieting presence in the residual gloom of the wood-panelled hallway. After dark I did my utmost to avoid moving unaccompanied within sight of its sunken, hollowed-out gaze. Under daylight, flared markings, resembling the beginnings and endings of engraved lettering, were visible upon his bare arms, which he had posed crossed over against his chest. It was my grandfather’s assumption that these vestige characters had once formed part of a family motto, perhaps applied to the painting after it was finished, and long since flaked off.

While studying divinity at Findlay College, in Oxford, I was surprised to encounter Tyte’s name recorded in a bound registry, held in the library collection at Christ Church Cathedral. Here he is listed as a founding member of a defunct order of stone masons and church builders known as The Cult of Weight, whose activities are briefly summarised in an accompanying footnote. Further illumination on the order has been provided to me by my mentor, Professor Victor Weston, to whom I wish to extend my deepest gratitude.

The sect first appears in records dating from the late 1600s. Most likely it was formed between 1672 and 1675, apparently in response to the discovery of a substantial stone relic that was uncovered following a landslip, outside the village of Woolweir, in the county of Devon. The find was described by an early eye-witness, Father Martin Ward, as a hollowed-out cone of calloused, coarse-grained marble, eleven yards long, the outer surface bearing a mottled pattern of worn-down bumps that were uniform enough in distribution to have been the work of a craftsman. A subsequent report, again originating from Ward, observed what appeared to be a garland of overlapping angel wings, carved close to the base of the object where it emerged from the mud. This had only been revealed after a heavy shower of rain. News of the discovery reached the ears of the church who thought it of enough note to warrant a visitation by a delegation of senior clergy, headed by an envoy of the Bishop of London. Among the party was my ancestor, Anthony Tyte; a man of puritanical zeal who claimed that, on multiple occasions, he had been taken from his bed by an angel and carried up to heaven. He had made attempts to replicate elements of the celestial architecture he had laid eyes upon, in the designs of a trinity of churches constructed in the capital, on the south bank of the river Thames. Sadly none of these buildings have survived into into modernity.

The landslip had covered a seldom-used cart track that ran along the foot of a steep natural embankment, and connected a pair of outlying farms with the village. From the top of the mound of disturbed earth and uprooted trees, the stone object projected like a spire on an upright slant. William Docking, who was steward to the Bishop of London, wrote in a letter to his master:

‘The farmer who showed us the way was keen that we should help him to free his wagon, which was trapped beneath the deluge of loose soil. Alas, when we uncovered it, the conveyance was crushed beyond repair under the weight of all that had come to rest on top of it. Laying eyes upon the wreckage, the man begged that alms be provided by the church as charitable restitution for the act of god that had deprived him of one of the tools of his livelihood. Some form of recompense was agreed upon, under condition that he would assist in the removal of the object when the time came.”

Following a careful inspection of the carvings on the stone, Tyte declared it to be a fragment of the celestial masonry that had tumbled from heaven to earth during the great battle between good and evil, that climaxed in Lucifer being cast down into hell. He ignored the locals who insisted that you could find stones of similar size and shape, and with similar markings, strewn throughout the region.

At this time, the foundations for Barnstaple Cathedral had just been put to ground. Tyte was friends with the principle architect, John Brightwell, and convinced him to incorporate his new-found holy relic into the bell tower as a steeple.

He remained on the site of the cathedral throughout the summer of 1672, and possibly all the way through to 1675. During this time the cult assembled around him, Brightwell, and another man named Neville Drewer, drawing its ranks from the masons and carpenters who were working on the building. Their stated intent, documented in a damaged copy of their charter, was to restore stone and metal objects, thought to be of divine provenance, to their rightful positions in the heavens, by incorporating them within the upper echelons of places of Christian worship.

The cult grew quickly, spreading rapidly across England, its members distinguishing themselves from the disparates ranks of artisans who converge upon any large-scale architectural project. Acolytes of the order were well-versed in the practicalities of structural engineering. They were renowned crane builders, meticulously crafting winches carved into the detailed likenesses of angels, upon which every filament of each feather was individually etched into solid oak. During a construction, these cranes ascended along with the rising walls; the pathways of their upward journeys having been pre-determined by the architects in their plans. At a point where an angel had scaled to the zenith of its usefulness, it would be incorporated into the walls of the cathedral, with the winches facing either internally or externally, according to the design. Henceforth, they might occasionally be deployed in the transportation of heavy loads into the upper reaches of the building.

As engravers, the cultists worked at such a frenetic pace that the ends of their chisels would glow red hot from the friction. Every so often a tool would ricochet from the stone and burn through clothing to brand the skin of an arm or a leg. This is the likely cause of the markings in Tyte’s portrait, his body having been permanently scored with the off-cuts of the sentences he had engraved into the walls of churches and cathedrals.

In exchange for their materials and services, the masons requested that burial chambers be built within the eaves and spires, where members of the sect could be interred upon death. When Anthony Tyte passed from this world in 1733, his earthly remains were lain to rest in a lofty crypt of his own design, sequestered within the steeple of Barnstaple Cathedral; the holy relic that was the foundation stone of The Cult of Weight.

Two decades prior to his demise he oversaw the construction of my childhood home on the site of Barnley Manor, which had been destroyed by fire. Its successor was deliberately rotated upon the old foundation, a few degrees towards the west, banishing almost from sight the nearby village of Little Sarling, which Tyte believed to be over-run by impious souls. In 1757, the population was almost entirely wiped out by an outbreak of pneumonic plague and the settlement permanently reduced to no more than a quarter of its former size, comprising no more than five cottage dwellings.

The Cult of Weight, latterly known as The Worshipful Company of Weight, disbanded abruptly in 1849. A brief disclosure announcing the winding-up of its affairs was posted in the business pages of The London Fairlead, but no further explanation was given.

In the same year, a journal article by John Hammerton, who was Anglican Bishop of Masham, observed that cathedrals which had assimilated pieces of divine masonry supplied by the cult, appeared more prone to drawing down unfavourable weather and suffering from structural damage. Hammerton was a rational man and attributed the phenomenon to quirks in the architecture influencing weather patterns “perhaps by the shaping of the winds that continually buffet the upper extremities of these prominent buildings.”

In October, 1987, a hurricane rampaged across Great Britain. The gusts caused catastrophic damage to Barnstaple Cathedral. Eye witnesses claim to have seen the stone spire wrenched clean away from the bell tower and lifted high into the air where it was swallowed up by the roiling clouds. In the aftermath, no trace of it could be found.

I visited the cathedral in 1993, while on holiday in Dartmoor. It was not long after the unveiling of the new bell tower and steeple. While I was there, I spoke with one of the volunteer guides and asked him his opinion on the fate of the missing original.

He replied that it had most-likely been torn apart in the storm and the pieces scattered by the winds along the bed of the River Taw.

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Image: Bernhard Stärck

 

 

Oil – David Cook

As the factory was built, the town hummed with expectation. This was big news. Employment was scarce here. Many families were living cap in hand, and they were thought to be the lucky ones. Some couldn’t even afford a cap in the first place.

Shortly after the final bricks were placed, a finely-dressed gentleman appeared in front of the factory gates, clutching a loudhailer. ‘Attention townspeople!’ he hollered. ‘Your prayers have been answered. There is plenty of work available here!’

‘Hurrah!’ roared the townspeople.

‘This,’ he told them, ‘is a vegetable oil factory. In return for working here, all I ask is that you grow produce in your gardens and bring them to me. We will turn that into oil and sell it around the globe. And you will all be paid well!’

‘Hurrah!’ roared the crowd again, although some were unsure about having to hand over their carrots and potatoes, and others were confused because they didn’t think these were the sorts of vegetables that actually went into vegetable oil.

But they stopped questioning the man when what he said came true – the factory’s oil was sold all around the world and the workers were paid well. If the cost of being able to afford warm clothes and a few luxuries was giving up a few spuds each month, then that was okay with them.

Then another factory was built.

The finely-dressed gentleman appeared at its gates with his loudhailer. ‘Attention townspeople!’ he hollered. ‘Those of you who were unable to gain work at the vegetable oil factory, listen to me. More work will soon be available here!’

‘Hurrah!’ roared the townspeople.

‘And this time, we will be making sunflower oil! To work here, all I ask is that you grow sunflowers in your gardens and bring them to me. We will turn them into oil and sell this around the globe too! And you, like your colleagues at the vegetable oil factory, will all be paid well!’

‘Hurrah!’ roared the crowd yet again. Some of them had to borrow money from their neighbours who worked at the other factory so they could actually buy sunflower seeds, and others were confused as to why they actually had to grow them when it was only their seeds that go into sunflower oil in the first place, and weren’t vegetable oil and sunflower oil basically the same thing, anyway? But they stopped questioning the man when what he said came true – the factory’s oil was sold all around the world and all the workers were paid well. If the cost of being able to afford warm clothes and a few luxuries was looking after some sunflowers in their gardens, then that was okay with them.

But still some townspeople were without work, so when a third new factory was built they became very excited. Shortly after the final bricks were placed, the finely-dressed gentleman appeared in front its gates, again with his loudhailer. ‘Attention townspeople!’ he hollered once more. ‘Those of you who were unable to gain work at the vegetable oil factory or the sunflower oil factory, listen to me. More work will soon be available here, but this is the final factory I will build! As ever, I will require you to bring me the raw materials, and with them we will make and sell the finest of oils.’’

‘Hurrah!’ roared the townspeople yet again, and eagerly awaited the news about what sort of manufacturer this would be.

‘This,’ shouted the finely-dressed gentleman,’will be a baby oil factory!’

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DAVID COOK’s stories have been published in a number of places online and in print, and he was once nominated for the Pushcart Prize, which was nice. You can find more of his work at http://www.davewritesfiction.wordpress.com and say hi on Twitter @davidcook100. He lives in Bridgend, Wales, with his wife and daughter.

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Image: Silke

Finding Eden – Matthew Duggan

Swimming so far from the crowd to strong waves
that guide me back to the shore,
I confess all my sins to a theatre without any faces
where the only ears listening are the cracks in bathroom mirrors,

Autumn leaves fall like lotus eaters retrieving the dead
I had found my Eden and never tasted its fruits,
the golden buds lay in sticky puddles of rust
among the remains of poached angel feathers,

a stranger wearing the pierced armour of paradise
Where all the delights had long ago expired and decayed,
I had found my Eden and never tasted its fruits
In a man-made paradise now unhinged.

 

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MATTHEW DUGGAN’s poems have appeared in several poetry journals such as Ghost City Review, Harbinger Asylum, Prole, The Journal, Ink, Sweat, and Tears, Osiris. In 2015 Matt won the Erbacce Prize for Poetry with his first full collection Dystopia 38.10 (erbacce-press) and in 2016 won the Into the Void Poetry Prize. Matt has a new collection out called One Million Tiny Cuts published by New York Publishing House. http://www.claresongbirdspub.com

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Image: MWDesignCologne

 

 

Unction – Jessica Bonder

The Woods place burned to the ground in April, owing a mattress too close a stove pipe. Twilight ruptured with screams, with geyser-yells spouting, with shouts flapping wild like bats in the eaves. I crawled to the window, my legs not yet fastened, still propped in the corner like umbrellas, like canes. My nightgown a snakeskin shed across the floor, a molted chrysalis, translucent, trailing. Like a house-trapped bird, I threw myself at the glass. The moon was out as the sun came up. It was two states at once, a time between times. I clung to the sill. Watched.

With buckets Mr. Woods raced down to the pond, his buckets like thimbles against the flame’s scale. In desperate arcs he chucked water, which landed to no effect, hopeless as pennies wished into a well. Mrs. Woods off aways keened under a quilt, entire generations upon her back. Old aprons, dresses, bunting, blankets, stitched into a history, a motley patchwork. All the women in her life were there that day, each a soft square, bearing witness.

For three days it smoldered, some hot dying thing, its immolated frame collapsing to pitch. To nothing: A blank on a field, a singular blot; a negative space, present in absence. On the scrim of drawn lids could I still see it, its original form, solid and there. When the smoke cleared, there materialized a truth: Cruelties are born no love can redeem.

The Woods place—was gone.

With an ice hook, by moonlight, I fished through the despond. Salvaged a door-knocker, brass and leonine. A roaring king with a ring through its maw, royalty to welcome a pauper home. I swathed it in a fold of skirt; it was still warm; still good. I found Mr. Woods, next day, in the barn. They were living there, the Woods, until their place was rebuilt. Pa wouldn’t permit them stay in the manse. Cobwebs more welcome to sleep in our guestrooms. Dust more invited to dinner than the hands. And Pa’s precious Jerseys, would I not be surprised, if he asked one to tea, Mrs. Woods set aside. Like a jug on a shelf, a broom or a pan, there for its job; alone.

Udders hung squeezed. Milk shot in streams. White pelted tin. Tap tap tap. A tail was tied back onto itself; it did not hurt the animal, Mr. Woods said, it just helped her stay out of her own way. On a stool Mr. Woods, redolent of the past, smoke was his hair, his clothes. Him. We become what we lose; we are loss. No scrubbing, no soap, no surface so clean, as the skin we are born in, and not even then. Birth, by its nature, a violent corruption.

I presented the knocker. My throat a fat knot. Wet beads hit my almond toes.

It’s alright, Caroline. You hold on to that.

And I did until December, long as it took, observed Mr. Woods as he rebuilt. Studied how he did it, what tools he used. In my Wanamaker diary, pencilled a list: hammer saw shovel trowel. Lead unto paper soothed as a salve, muted the pangs of my phantom pain. Provided a distraction, a preoccupation; my mind, my hands, something to do. From the forest I gathered stones, left them in little piles; when Mr. Woods found them, he knew what for. In the new fireplace were my thumbprints sealed.

A door sighed anew, and dread winged off.

*   *   *

The herd was Pa’s investment, a sliver of his pie, a bit of milkfat wealth to butter his bread. Pa bought the farm to escape the city rush, had the mansion built, a house on a hill. While the farmhouse, he decided, would be part of their contract: free housing provided to Mr. and Mrs. Woods. Free in the sense that they signed away their lives.

Free in the sense that, like me, they weren’t.

On the breed, Mr. Woods was an expert, and also on prosthetics, which he soon found out. Mr. Woods carved my legs, despite my father’s protests, and years later, taught me how to drive. From the start, Pa preferred I surrender: to a chaise, to a bed, immobile feminine. Were it not for the cows, for the money he brought in, Mr. Woods, fired, would have been the case.

Mr. Woods knew this. Mr. Woods was not dumb.

Mrs. Woods was the woman whose hands delivered me, deformed girl child, birthed me to life. It was Mrs. Woods and no one beside my dying mother, a newborn and blood loss, my father in New York. There is a portrait in the parlor of my mother as an infant. It is the only image of her that survives—in my father’s grief, the others he destroyed. So when I think of my mother, I think of her as a baby.

It is weird to have a baby as a mother.

“Well, hello, Caroline, please come in.”

It’s Mrs. Woods at the stove, the same one as before.

I give a little wave, shift the air.

My woodens clatter across the fresh boards.

In the Woods kitchen, Shep snouts me hello. I reach down and stroke his tail; its silky strands like fringes on an Oriental shawl. I run his fur through my fingers, over and over, sand through an hourglass, flip it, repeat. There’s a chair in the corner. That one’s mine. It misses two spindles. It misses me.

“How are you today, my dear?” Mrs. Woods to the range, shiny with grease, licking flames. Chicken and rosemary, butter and thyme. Mrs. Woods is as tall and as straight as a spruce. Her skirt is nankeen. It grazes the floor.

I say nothing (as if to say): Things are as bad as they still are.

I say nothing (as if to say): And maybe, even, worse.

She registers my mood like crickets vibrations, like horses storms. Intuits. Seems women have antennae, peaked ears, hidden eyes—extrasensory in their natural perceptions. Her concern a quick mask, a passing shade, an eclipse on her countenance. Dark. Between us transmits a secreted language, as silent and effective as an arachnid’s web. Catches lightly our weight, our heaviest thoughts, binds them together in candyfloss threads.

There are no words needed because it is us.

A sound. An approach. Shep reports to the stairs. The screen door snaps, open/shut, like a trap. It’s Mr. Woods run in—or maybe run out. In a liminal frame, waylaid, assailed.

His arms are sheathed in blood. His chest is soaked crimson. He is a heaving burst force. An emergency of flesh. Mrs. Woods says what, what is it Joseph. He says it’s the calf, the calf just born.

His throat hitches, dry as tinder.

Boil water, Agnes, bring it the barn.

Mrs. Woods swings a cauldron over the hearth, filled with water, earlier drawn. She prods the ashwood with a cross-handled poker. Her hand a late autumn leaf, quivering on the branch.

Mr. Woods, in his despair, errs to perceive me, does not turn at my footfall as I follow him out. The sky is grey. Racks rush to cover. The horizon is panic. Indeterminate.

In the stall, the miasma hangs heavy. The boots have gathered. It reeks like the end. I weave through the throng like a reed on a loom, secure a clear view of the just-born. The mutant trembles in the birth-wet hay. Three horns crest dead center its skull. Three horns like daggers,

like daggers a lady’s, petite and unsheathed. Diminutive threats. Its skinny neck strains; its twig legs buckle; its knees are gnarly knobs. It is no boy.

Among the boots, murmurs: Praise-be’s and Lord-a-mercy’s.

Among the boots, a refrain: Should it be saved.

Like a vulture to carrion, the old curse circles, circles the rafters, dives to pick. The ancient accusation of my birth a hex, a scourge on the estate. My mother’s death. Resurfacing like mud beneath a spring melt, a relentless sun beating, unreason recast. The boots speak of me, speak through me, as if I am not there. I am no ghost.

I am right there.

In the corner, the dam on her side, her horn-maimed body in a brown heap. Mr. Woods elbows bent, hip-fisted, brow creased; lines in his face like readable thought: This dam is worth thousands—what will the old man say? And what of the tri-horn—what? Aside him is Carl, Mr. Woods’ right hand, advising him, softly, in a low tone. To my insect ears do his words amplify, do they cut through the din, pierce clear and sharp:

Besides the horns, ain’t nothing wrong with it, Joe. She’ll grow into the defect. It’s up to you.

Mrs. Woods arrives with the cauldron of water. The boots part to let her through. She steadies it—steady now!—lowers it to the floor. Coils of serpentine vapors, ribbons of hot fog. Mr. Woods dips a rag. Rings it out. Applies it to the encroachment, to the cold, of death’s grip. A last rites, a cleansing. Warmth on the mother. For her, he says, there is nothing we can do.

Overhead, rain startles the roof. Sluices in rivulets. Little rivers.

What of the calf? Mrs. Woods says. She approaches it as if it were normal. Extends her hand to its chocolate nose. It leans its mass into her palm. Its eyelashes are black, thick as fuzzy woolies. Caterpillars with fur. It moos.

Something lightens, brightens, a curtain pulled back.

It is me, laughing.

The boots turn in alarm.

Mr. Woods wipes his hands. Meets his wife’s eyes. Shakes his head in the way men do: slow and sure, slow and sure. Rubs the back of his neck, finds a decision there.

When Pa finds out, there is no end.

*   *   *

CAROLINE!

The baize does nothing.

The baize does nothing to suffocate his howls; his fits clap against the manse like hooves on cobblestone. The baize panels on the walls, that my father had installed, their original purpose was to mute life’s sounds. Shut out disturbances like wooden legs walking, a lost girl enabled, navigating a labyrinth. Now all they do is shut Pa in. Leave him to rot with his termite thoughts, gnawing in tiny bites, masticating his sanity. In his musty study, Pa thrashes in his chair, like a hook-mad trout flipping on the line. He is bones in a suit. Wool tweed flesh death. Yells twice as loud, my name like a swear. The walls into tissue. Air.

CAROLINE!

I don’t know who told him.

Pa’s state is such that he never leaves his study. Pa’s state is such that Dr. Morton advises: hush ill news; don’t tell your father. The doctor’s black bag is a portable peace; its assortment of needles like pencils in a case. For when Pa peaks, when his episodes erupt, like solar flares off an angry sun. When his throat wails louder than any Nor’easter, I let the doctor in—and flee to the Woods; stumble trip fall through the crown-high corn. My knees are more bruise, more scab, than knee. I am a running collection.

It wasn’t me.

For something so tangled, so jumbled and twisted, there is a taut thread in Pa’s ball-of-yarn conscience: paranoia tugs in a tight straight line. Pa pays off spies, shadow members of the boots, to deliver him the dirt circulating the estate. Into the daily mail is their scuttlebutt slipped: unsigned notes tobacco stenched, glued with spit, rumor on pulp. A rosewood letter opener is my father’s close weapon. A stab in the dark; a slice; a read.

My father puts his faith in strangers.

Strange men before his daughter, his daughter—me.

CAROLINE!

I cross into the study and Pa points. Points a turnip finger at the contraption on the wall: his Western Electric artery to the outside world. Its two circular bells, like a pair of owl eyes, watch me as I make his call. Its mouthpiece is a sable horn. Its oak box is a baby’s coffin.

Get me the Reverend. Tell him it is urgent.

I pick up the receiver. I turn my back.

If I were magic, I’d dive into this box.

The operator and me—could we be friends?

*   *   *

Show me to your father.

The Reverend is an oil drip. He is a walrus face and tea-stained teeth. Balding pate, scalp spread like a spill, a low ring of hair like a sunken halo.

Everywhere I look is a fallen angel. Possess me a soul whose wings aren’t broken.

Yes Reverend.

The mansion is modelled after a cathedral. Its design is Gothic; it is shaped like a cross. Pa’s study, first floor, sits at the head: where would be the altar, incense and unction; that is where we find him; that is where he—

The Reverend behind me, I knock on the door; there is a splinter of light; a suspended breath. There is no voice more urgent than no voice at all. The Reverend pushes past me, pushes to the past. Under his arm, a tuck of red leather. My father’s favorite book. Expired medicine.

The Reverend finds the note in Pa’s hand. The news of the tri-horn, the cause of Pa’s death. An attack on a heart I didn’t think he had. The Reverend says this is the curse, what should have been exorcised long long ago. There is fire in his eyes when he says these words. He tips my chin up so that I can see it. So that I am forced to see it. The fire again. He says show me where, where is the calf.

There is no forgiveness when it comes down to it.

Except I get to it first. My body remembers.

*   *   *

Imagine a bell tower—that is my bedroom. The windows are dormers, the roof a hard slant. It is a room meant to keep me small.

Well these are the facts that I have outgrown, faster than mushrooms in the space of one sleep.

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JESSICA BONDER is an American fiction writer. She has published short stories and prose poetry in The Stockholm Review, The Lonely Crowd, The Honest Ulsterman, STORGY Magazine, Split Lip Magazine, Black Heart Magazine, The Bohemyth, Vending Machine Press, The Fiction Pool, and Unbroken Journal. Honors include: Longlisted for the 2017 Berlin Writing Prize; Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open (March/April 2017); Longlisted for STORGY Magazine’s 2017 EXIT EARTH Short Story Competition; Finalist in Split Lip Magazine’s 2017 Summer Mix Tape Flash Fiction Contest; Shortlisted for Short Fiction Journal’s 2017 Short Fiction Prize; First Place in STORGY’s 2015 Short Story Contest.

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Image: Bairyna

Snow in Summer – Ali McGrane

I’d not seen my mother cry before. The sight of it pinned my feet to the cracked lino, my sister’s breath loud in my ear.

The open kitchen door framed the rockery where snow in summer scrambled towards the concrete patio. If I could pass beyond this new version of my mother blocking the way, I would brush against the white-furred leaves as I climbed the steps to the lawn. The grass my father mowed the day before would have lost its pungency and dried stalks of it would stick between my toes. Screened by the giant blue hydrangea, I would squeeze the pure yellow pompoms of dahlias and watch them spring back, marked with new lines like the creases in my palm.

In the moist papery skin under my mother’s eyes, in the wet streak at the side of her nose, time stretched like my French skipping rope, the elastic tugging at my ankles.

The smell of wet sheets and laundry powder mingled with briny steam from the boiling ham. A black line edged the letter in my mother’s hand. Her pale green summer dress swung in ironed folds behind bronze freckles so dense along her arm it was hard to see her true colour. She pulled her red pinny to her face, the seam along the waistband splitting under the strain.

My trike sat parked on the patio where I’d left it. Inside the dome of its tightly closed boot my special stone slept safe in the dark, a million magic spells in its quartz frosting, the lucky hole filled with daisies rescued from the mower’s blade. I held the thought of it in my head, while my mother pushed past us into the hallway, while I skirted the unguarded space she left behind, while I dragged my weeping sister into the garden where rust bloomed across the sky-blue paint on my trike, and the metal handle of the boot scraped and squeaked as I struggled to turn it.

 

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ALI McGRANE is an emerging writer of short fiction and poetry, living between the sea and the moor. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fictive Dream, The Lost Balloon, Ellipsis Zine, Ink Sweat & Tears, Train Lit Mag and the 2017 Flash Fiction Festival:One anthology. Find her @Ali_McGrane_UK

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Image: PublicDomainPictures

Red Wine – Jessica Seaborn

When Greta vanished that night, she did so inside a glass of red wine.

I was with her at the time, alongside many of Greta’s other friends. Greta often held small gatherings and parties at her house, and that Friday night we had all congregated at Greta’s house as the sun went down.

There was Samantha, who only ate food with her pinky finger raised towards the sky. And then there was Zara, who didn’t ever eat much at all and yet no one seemed invested enough in her friendship to ever say anything to her about it. Whether she was wanting people to notice or not, I’m still not sure. 

There were a few others who I didn’t know, and from the little attention that Greta gave them, I gathered that there probably wasn’t much to know about them.

None of us were surprised that night when Greta glanced down into her glass — filled almost to the brim with expensive red wine — and was swallowed right up inside of the liquid. She was delightfully odd like that. The girl was a collection of limbs that wove in and out of our lives. One minute, she’d be dancing beside you to no music. And then she’d be gone. Poof. Out the door and across the road and into someone else’s evening of mischief. Sometimes she’d say to me I’m going to love you and leave you before rushing off. Sometimes she’d say nothing at all. 

Greta was seated at the time, with her glass resting atop a chipped wooden table. I shudder to think what would’ve occurred if Greta happened to be standing when she vanished. That glass of red wine would’ve dropped to the ground and poor Greta would have soaked herself right into her mother’s carpet. 

The glass shook a little bit on the table, but otherwise the entire spectacle went rather smoothly. And if I hadn’t seen it happen, we’d probably all still be wondering where on earth Greta got to. She was fluid like that — no pun intended.

There were only a handful of us left at the party at this point, and since I’d known Greta the longest, it was decided unanimously by the others that I would be the one to hold on to her. Just until we could figure out what to do. 

“No drinking allowed,” Shannon said, and then she trotted back through the house and left me sitting there. 

For the briefest of moments, I thought about resting my lips on the edge of the glass and tipping it up ever so slightly. Would that mean Greta and I were kissing? What part of her would I be touching? I wasn’t even sure she was still alive in there, but nevertheless, I clutched her to my chest and carried her home with me. I clung to her like a child does to a teddy bear — scared of dropping it and terrified someone might take it away. 

Greta and I lived next door to each other. We always have. There was a big old oak tree in her backyard and the plump branches had grown so tall and so wide that they were now hanging out over the top of the fence and into our yard. You could see Greta’s house from our kitchen, and there has been many a night when I’ve plonked myself down on one of our kitchen stools and glanced across the black night and into that place. But she was never there. Not when you wanted her to be, anyway. She comes and goes, our Greta.

When I got home and walked through the side door, my brother Ben was stumbling around in the kitchen muttering something incoherent. 

“Hey,” I said.

He turned around at the sound of my voice. “Oh hey. I’m putting a pizza in the oven. Want some?”

I shrugged. “Sure.”

I rested Greta on the kitchen table and sat down. It felt weird to have her here with me and know that she wasn’t able to up and leave me at any moment. Because of her transformation, she was now stuck with me. She would go wherever I would go. I sensed some sort of weird power in me. Happiness. 

“You still drinking?” Ben said.

“No. That’s just a friend.”

He ignored my comment, and then took some juice from the fridge and drank the rest of it straight from the carton. “How was the party?” he said.

“It was okay.”

“Who went?” he said.

“The usual. Shannon, Zara, Greta. A new group of randoms.”

“How was Greta tonight?” he said, eyebrows raising. He swivelled around and peered out the window into the darkness.

“She’s fine. Her usual self,” I said.

“I can’t see her,” he said.

“She must’ve slipped into her bedroom when you weren’t paying attention,” I replied.

In fourth grade, Greta grasped my hand and led me to that big old oak tree in her backyard. She told me that she wanted her first kiss to be with a friend. With me. And before I’d known what was happening, she had pecked me on the lips and then gone twirling around in the long grass, cackling and cackling like her throat was broken. Finally, she had laid down on the grass and spread out her arms and legs like a starfish.

“We dated you know,” Ben said.

I rolled my eyes. I did know. He mentioned it a lot. It was his pride and glory, dating Greta. The wonderful Greta, he often called her. Their fling wasn’t long, just the first few months of high school. And neither of them really ended it. Greta just stopped talking to him and then Ben was too infatuated with her to try and convince her to stay with him. 

“I know,” I said. Silence ensued for a few moments, and I was sure that we were both thinking about the same thing. Wonderful Greta. 

A long while ago, I got embarrassed that I was looking over at Greta’s house all the time. I could never even see her — she was never home. And sometimes I would glance across and catch her family members in a moment that was not mine to see. Her brother often entertained girls in his room with his blinds open and the lights on. Her parents liked to argue in the living room, with one of them always reaching for the television remote and turning up the volume to cover their screams. I could never hear what they were saying, but their baring teeth and reddened faces gave their anger away.

It was never her family members who I was looking for in that house, and I did try to stop. But I found it hard. It was like they were my family too. It was like I was the daughter they didn’t really have. I was always home. Greta wasn’t. I could’ve slotted in perfectly in that house.

“Do you reckon you’ll stay friends?” Ben asked. “You know, after school ends this year?”

“Of course,” I said, without the slightest hint of doubt.

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JESSICA SEABORN lives in Sydney and works in book publishing. She is the co-creator of The Regal Fox, a website showcasing fiction and non-fiction from writers all over the world. She has been published in Daily Life, Feminartsy and Milk Magazine. You can find her on Twitter @Jessica_Seaborn

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Image: Aline Ponce
 

 

 

Anaconda – Jonel Abellanosa

And even in the red fruits of forgetting
There is the pulse of knowing
What to retain, what to maintain
As the certain color. The silence
Of solitude is a red that brings itself
The liquids, the ways violets insinuate
Their flows into recall. If I have to wear
Red, then let it be the translucencies,
The ways you say no to my offers
Of galaxies, my extensions of the yeses
Vis-à-vis the constellations bridging
Our disagreements. The light years
Should connect me to your flowerings,
And if I regurgitate my heart whole
It is because love tenders
The notions of forgiving.

 

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JONEL ABELLANOSA resides in Cebu City, The Philippines. His poetry has appeared in more than a hundred journals and anthologies and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Dwarf Stars and the Best of the Net Awards. His fourth collection is forthcoming from Clare Songbirds Publishing House.

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Image: JB Pe

Sometimes I Smoke – J. E. Kennedy

I grab my secret stash, head into the yard when the kids are sleeping and light up. I don’t do it for the nicotine. I do it to remember.

Those moments when we’d sneak outside at parties and have a sly one together. Your ice blue eyes would pierce my own, they’d penetrate my flesh, my thoughts, my soul. I couldn’t hold it for long. It burned.

We couldn’t touch, it wasn’t allowed. But we were desperate to. We both knew it. Back inside we’d lock eyes across a crowded room. A moment, a flash, but we knew what it meant. A glimpse through a gap in gyrating bodies and we’d ravish each other for an eternity. Look away.

Sometimes our skin would touch. Thrown together for a group photo. The air crackles. Nobody noticed the unexploded bomb. Fake smiles. We are expert deceivers.

There are no more parties, no more stolen moments. Just me and the secret stash grasping at a feeling. If only we’d met in another life, another time.

I crush the cigarette out. A foul smell clings to my fingers, coats my tongue. A sickly swell churns my stomach. My lungs rot.

The aftermath. The regret. The self disgust. That’s how it would’ve been.

If they’d discovered us.

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J. E. KENNEDY is an aspiring writer from Liverpool, England. Examples of her work can be found on her fantastical fiction website http://www.jekennedy.co.uk. Or follow her on Instagram @jekennedywriter. She is currently working on her debut novel.

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Image: Ralf Kunze
 

Her Children – Cath Barton

Llinos stands on the back doorstep, hands wrapped round a mug of tea. Up on the hillside, getting smaller as she watches, is her brother, Tomos.

“I saw you,” she says. They are sitting at the kitchen table. Their mother has her back turned to them. There’s a hiss as she breaks an egg into the frying pan.

“How long will it be Mam? I need to get out.”

“As long as it takes. Stop whining or I’ll give your egg to Llin.”

“Nah, Mam,” Tomos whines.

“I saw you,” Llinos says again, softly.

Tomos looks at her.

“Where? You couldn’t have.”

“I did.”

Their mother pushes plates of egg and bacon in front of them. They eat in silence, heads down. Anyone watching would think they haven’t eaten for weeks.

The truth is, they haven’t. Or at least, they haven’t eaten enough. Though their mother doesn’t know that. She has been cooking up breakfast – and lunch and supper – for her two children every day. For all the weeks and months they’ve been at the cottage.

“I wear my fingers to the bone for those two,” she says to her counsellor later that morning.

“That’s a cliché,” says the counsellor. “Try and put it into your own words.”

The mother – her name is Bronwen but the counsellor calls her mother too and she doesn’t like to contradict – tells the counsellor that these are her own words.

“For goodness sake! You’re supposed to be helping me.” She says.

“Good,” says the counsellor. “You’re getting angry, mother. About time too.”

Mother works from 8am to 8pm, every day. That’s what she tells the counsellor. And the work is never done. She is exhausted, doing this on her own. The children have been getting so unruly.

“Unruly?” The counsellor is looking for another word. Again.

“Unruly,” says Bronwen.

Back in the cottage at the end of the long drive through the woods where no doubt the Tylwyth Teg play at night, Llinos and Tomos are waiting. Or at least, two children who mother knows as Llinos and Tomos are waiting. They have been playing hide and seek. They have pulled the sheets from all the beds for their game. They have run outside, outside to play on the soggy grass – no-one could call it a lawn, it’s full of weeds and there are brambles too which have ripped the sheets. When Bronwen gets back she finds the mess of children and sheets. She knows that the children need food. That it will calm them down. She cuts slabs of bread to make sandwiches. With meat. Thick slices of ham, cooked on the bone. Bronwen is a vegetarian. She would like her children to be vegetarian too but they love meat.

“They eat too much,” she’d said to the counsellor. “You know I’m a mother,” she says when the counsellor does not respond. “How can a mother deny her children?”

The counsellor had nodded. Then she’d looked at her watch and said the hour was at an end.

The food calms the children. Bronwen tells them to go and play after lunch. She doesn’t see where they go. She makes herself a cup of tea and sits down to listen to a play on the radio. It’s warm in the room and the voices are low. She dozes.

As the sun is setting a girl, let’s call her Llinos, stands in the kitchen doorway and looks up to the hillside, where a boy, let’s call him Tomos, is getting smaller as he climbs. The girl follows him. Soon, if Bronwen were looking, she would see the two children silhouetted on the skyline, before they disappear over to the other side. But she is not looking. She is in the kitchen, preparing more food. And when she calls Llinos and Tomos for tea, the two children will be there. Eating again, as if they hadn’t seen food for weeks.

Bronwen feels so tired, but as she’d told the counsellor, how can a mother do other than feed her children?

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CATH BARTON is an English writer who lives in Wales. Winner, New Welsh Writing Awards AmeriCymru Prize for the Novella 2017 and 2nd place in the Dorset Fiction Award, October 2017. Stories in The Lonely Crowd, Fictive Dream, Spelk and more. Regular contributor to Wales Arts Review. https://cathbarton.com/ Tweets @CathBarton1

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Image: tookapic

 

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