Clowning Around – R C deWinter

loud and infuriating
full of yourself
so boastful
egocentric
so
so
so MALE
shedding testosterone like a leper shedding skin

you make me crazy
why should i love you
when it’s obvious you’ve found your true love
and it’s YOU

and then i stop
simmer down
cool off
blink my inner eyes
and take a good long look
inside your shadow self

and there i see what lies beneath the raging clownsuit
you wear for everyday
a thick molasses pool of doubt
small boyfeet firmly stuck in that gooey morass
feeling unworthy
feeling unloved

but wait
i blink again
i have this habit
kindness
always playing out that deceitful rope
projecting what i think
always flavored with compassion instead of truth

now i’m flummoxed
and don’t know what to do

should i trust my intuition
help that small boy
if he’s real
come unstuck
or should i shut this down

take you at face value
and kiss the loudmouth clown goodbye

 

RC deWinter’s poetry is anthologized, notably in Uno: A Poetry Anthology (Verian Thomas, 2002), New York City Haiku (NY Times, 2017), Cowboys & Cocktails (Brick Street Poetry, April 2019), Nature In The Now (Tiny Seed Press, August 2019), in print in 2River, Adelaide Magazine, borrowed solace, Genre Urban Arts, In Parentheses, Night Picnic Journal, Prairie Schooner, Reality Break Press, Southword among many others and appears in numerous online literary journals. Her art has been published too, and was licensed to ABC for use on the television show “Desperate Housewives.”

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Tunnel – Wendy Burke

I’m in trouble. Big trouble. There’s been an accident in the tunnel.

It’s dark. Can’t find way to the cool air. Panic. Blood bangs where? There, in my temples.

Confusion, noise and medics they trying help. Voices say, ‘keep moving, that’s it, that’s it.’ Are they know I, the voices? They- the memory dark. It… it’s colder getting. I not reach the out. Legs no work. Begin shut down. It’s I- okay, stay here deep dark. Stay now in longest night. I-

‘Come on son,’ someone he shout, far away, like through water. They not. Give up. Hands on my head, my shoulders. Pull, pull, the wrench-pain of a limp-limbed beginning.

Then comes bright light of outside. Someone screams. Or it’s a boom of beeps and talk.

Man, woman – oh. Oh! Are you Mum? D-dad?

I am safe.

I am born.

 

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Sun Squares – Dave Alcock

It was almost noon on a Wednesday morning in July, and the year’s final weekly meeting of the village toddler group had just taken place in the Parish Hall. John Litttlechild, and a handful of other parents from the group’s organising committee, had just finished packing away and tidying up. The toys and climbing frames had been stacked neatly in the shed, the plastic plates and cups washed up and stored. John had swept and wiped clean the floor and now, since the others had said their goodbyes and left, it was his job to lock up the doors.

With his youngest son Blake trailing along at his side, John double-checked the fire-escape, and unhooked the main swing doors, but as he stopped at the doorway and put his hand in his pocket for the key, he turned around and looked back into the hall.

During the summertime, in the morning, when the weather is good, the sun streams down on the Parish Hall’s east-facing wall, and through each of that wall’s three sash windows it throws a sloping column of light. On the dark wooden floorboards, it casts three slanting yellow rectangles. At first, they are long and reach out almost to the stage at the front of the hall, but as the sun rises and moves west, these bright squares of sunlight shorten and change direction, until they strain towards the swing doors at the back.

John stood still in the doorway. His eyes settled on the sun squares, and for a moment he considered their change of direction and shape. “How strange,” he thought. “For four years I’ve been coming here, and never before have I noticed them change.” Then he looked up at the windows, and remembered something he’d forgotten to do. “I must just close the curtains,” he said to Blake. “I’ll do this, then we’ll both go outside.”

He walked over to the east-facing wall, and pulled two sets of curtains shut. Two of the sun squares vanished, but, at the third window, John looked up and stopped. Through the glass, he saw the small grassed garden, into which the children often went to play. It was there that they splashed in paddling pools, or hurtled on ride-ons down the sloping concrete path. There that they chased and tumbled, or looked at insects that lived in the ivy on the fence.

As John looked through the window, a look of sadness came slowly to his face. Blake was four. He’d go to the primary school in September. Their time at the toddler group had come to an end.

For a moment, John’s eyes closed, and he remembered all the things that had happened in the hall. He saw his children crawling in baby-grows, standing and staggering, then sitting upright on chairs. He remembered them climbing in his hands up ladders. He heard them giggling as they slipped down slides. He saw them baking things, and making things, and singing and laughing with their peers. He saw them changing their shape and direction. More clearly than ever, he saw his children growing up.

“Growing up?” John wondered incredulously. He went cold with a feeling of loss. “My children have ceased to be toddlers,” he thought. “The time of their infancy has come and gone.” He looked again through the glass at the garden. His throat tightened and his eyes cooled and blurred. And he hesitated, soft with nostalgia, wishing he could live through that special time again.

Then a voice groaned wearily from the doorway. “Come on, Dad! It’s time for us to go!”

John blinked and swallowed deeply. He took a breath and forced his feelings back down. “You’re right,” he said, and he drew the final set of curtains, and the last golden sun square disappeared from the floor. He turned around and went quickly through the darkness. And he said, “It’s about time we locked up the door.”

 

Dave Alcock lives in Devon, England, and writes about the ordinary people and places of the British provinces. His stories focus on psychological change and the seeing and acceptance of new things. His flashes have been published in print by Ad Hoc Fiction and can be found online at Every Day Fiction and STORGY Magazine.

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A Weighty Investigation – Duncan Hedges

Maxwell’s punctuality at mealtimes led Ann to suspect that his stomach was built in Switzerland, even if the rest of him was of pure Scottish stock. Therefore, his absence from the dining table one mild autumn evening came as something of a surprise. Not wishing to appear overly concerned, Ann took a walk into the farmyard, still wearing her carpet slippers, in search of her wayward husband. She started in the feed room but finding it deserted continued to the chicken shed, which was quite the opposite, though only occupied by avian residents. Finally, she headed for the milking parlour, but on entering, all she could see through the gloom was a large Friesian cow apparently in a state of levitation. The harmless beast looked at her solemnly, its big doleful eyes expressing no alarm. With a feeling of gentle resignation, Ann concluded that her husband must be up to his tricks again.

‘Maxwell?’ she called out in expectation.

‘My name’s Dolly,’ came the deadpan reply, in a gravelly Scottish accent.

It was the kind of humour Ann had suffered for the best part of 20 years. At least her suspicions had been confirmed. And when she finally remembered her husband’s latest harebrained idea, everything fell into place.

It had all started months before on the day of Dolly’s birth. She had been carried from the fields, Maxwell cradling her in a delicate grip that would impress the most learned of midwives. It was an action he had performed many times before but only with Dolly had he considered the long-term possibilities of such behaviour. It struck him that if he were to lift these same ungulate bones on a daily basis, then the incremental increase in weight would prove negligible meaning that one day, he would be able to lift a fully grown cow. Ann had received full briefing of the idea and had suggested that he trial it with a creature of more manageable size, such as a sheep or a pig at the very most. Not one to entertain half measures, Maxwell resolved to stick with the original plan and so Dolly became his subject for investigation.

As Ann stood looking on, it became apparent that Maxwell had no intention of returning the poor beast to the ground. Evidently, he had finished the milking for that evening, so Ann grabbed a couple of bottles and returned to the farmhouse, safe in the knowledge that her husband hadn’t suffered an inglorious farming accident. No, he just happened to be holding a cow aloft. Shortly afterwards, she was relieved to hear the sound of the front door, the power of his appetite having not been totally usurped by other activities. Her husband sat down and she bounced a large bowl of beef stew to him across the kitchen table. They were not the most talkative of couples at the best of times, often surviving on a series of grunts and purrs, but this evening Maxwell seemed unusually quiet and contemplative. Maybe he was reflecting on the irony of his unbelievable cow lifting strength being based upon a hearty consumption of beef. Or maybe there was something else on his mind now that his latest physical challenge had been successfully completed, as witnessed through the impartial eyes of his wife.

Maxwell got up from the table, his body uncurling like a party blower as he stretched to his impressive full height. Taking a bottle of milk from the fridge, he poured himself a full pint, the glass fitting his hand like a half pint would for any person of average build. He opened his gullet and took a long steady swig, his contemplative gaze slowly subsiding to be replaced by an expression of mischief and mirth.

‘Ann,’ he said inquiringly, ‘do you think there’s a market for elephant milk?’

 

Duncan Hedges lives and works in Leeds, West Yorkshire. He writes short stories in his spare time. He has previously been published online at Ellipsis Zine, Spelk and Bending Genres. https://twitter.com/duncan_hedges

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Whale Fall – Lisa Creech Bledsoe

Baleen whales can live a hundred years—
a fact known from generations-old harpoons locked
in the flesh of harvested whales—artifacts:
antique bullets, unexploded mines from a war
about which someone’s grandparents still have nightmares.

What will be cut one day from your body
or mine, that might be considered museum quality—
and what generation’s stories will be sealed in
such a reliquary?

Having made immense improvements to the diving bell
in the late 1700s, Charles Spalding and his nephew
Ebenezer proposed to recover silver, lead, and other
cargo from a ship wrecked in the Irish Sea. Seated
together in the bell, they were guided down with weights
but died, it was thought, after toxic gasses
from rotting bodies pinned in the wreck bubbled up
into their muscular, resolute shell.

Something in me bends away without my understanding
from the exquisite peal of swan and owl, burrows down
to a dreadful — or perhaps magnificent—lightlessness.
Our bodies grow heavy as if guided down by weights, and will
one day be given, or taken by fluke, weapon or
waters slashed to white by sea winds—

then we will fall like the whale,
whose curving architecture, whose mineraled vaults
and sweeping courtyards are briefly thronged with votaries,
then embraced by the current, and more tranquil songs.

 

Watched by crows and friend to salamanders, Lisa Creech Bledsoe is a hiker, beekeeper, and writer living in the mountains of North Carolina. Her first book of poetry, Appalachian Ground, was published in 2019 and she has poems forthcoming in The Main Street Rag, Front Porch Review, and Jam & Sand.

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Softly, Softly – Paul Nevin

Simon Markham had been heating water in a saucepan, but now his kettle had arrived. His new neighbour Mrs Stephens had taken in his Amazon parcel, and when he called upstairs to collect it after work she moved past their nodding acquaintance and ushered him in for tea for the first time.

He waited in an armchair in her neat living room, watching her son, or more likely grandson, Nathan (Mrs Stephens was well into her fifties, the boy about ten), bash two toy cars together in one head-on collision after another. The boy was still dressed in his school uniform, and he sat on the rug in front of the electric fire, on despite the warmth of the spring day. He ignored Simon, and the only sound he made was the explosion that accompanied each car crash.

Mrs Stephens came in carrying a tea-set on a tray. She set it down on the coffee table beside Simon’s parcel, and sat on the sofa opposite him.

‘So, did you know the area before you moved in?’ she said.

Simon nodded. ‘I used to live in a house just the other side of town.’

She glanced at the wedding band on his finger as she poured the tea. ‘And will Mrs Markham be joining you?’

Simon thumbed the ring and thought of Ellie. He guessed that Mrs Stephens knew the answer to this question— there were few reasons you moved from a house to a basement flat in the same town, and she’d seen him coming and going on his own for the past fortnight.

‘No,’ he said. ‘We’re separated. That’s why I’ve moved.’

‘I see,’ Mrs Stephens said. She handed him a cup and saucer. ‘You’ll be looking for a new wife then?’

Simon let out a hoot of laughter, more in shock than amusement, but Mrs Stephens didn’t seem to realise that she’d said anything untoward. She stared at him over the rim of her cup as she sipped her tea, and he realised that she was waiting for an answer.

‘I might let the dust settle on this one first,’ he said.

‘Do you still love her?’ Mrs Stephens said.

He paused, assuming he’d misheard her, but then realised that she’d really been so direct. He felt a flash of anger, and then confusion as to how to react. A weak ‘It’s complicated,’ was all he managed. He gulped at his tea, although it was still too hot and the room too warm.

She gestured at his cup hand with hers. ‘It’s just the ring,’ she said. ‘You’re still wearing it.’

‘Oh, that,’ he said. He meant to add something bland and innocuous, perhaps that it was just force of habit to keep it on, but he found himself telling the truth: ‘I’m just not ready to take it off.’

‘Hers was off right away though, I imagine,’ she said.

He thought back to the day he’d moved out, to sofa-surf with friends until he found the flat downstairs. That was two months ago. Ellie’s wedding ring was off her finger by that point, yes, but it had been absent for months already.

Simon offered Mrs Stephens a thin smile. He didn’t even know her first name; he wasn’t about to discuss his marriage with her.

Mrs Stephens set her cup on its saucer. He braced for another invasive question, but she turned her attention to the boy.

‘Did you meet Nathan?’ she said.

‘I did,’ Simon said, but the boy hadn’t even looked up from his cars.

She beckoned the child to them.

Nathan put his cars down and wandered over, staring at Simon. He stood beside Mr Stephens, leaning on the arm of the sofa and twisting in place on one foot.

Simon leaned forward to put his cup on the table, and a thought popped into his mind – fully formed and with an urge to be acted upon – that he has been an awful husband, that he had made a terrible mistake, and that life without Ellie wasn’t worth living.

The boy was still staring, but now he was smiling. The thought grew stronger, setting down roots, not just intrusive but compulsive, and as bleak and hopeless as depression. There was a hot water pipe running across the top of the bathroom wall in the flat downstairs, and he wondered if it might hold his weight.

Simon could feel a ring of sweat forming around his collar. He leaned back in the armchair, and the idea evaporated at once, a dark cloud that had blotted out the sun, but which had now passed by.

‘You’re doing it the wrong way,’ Mrs Stephens said.

Simon shook his head, not understanding, but she was talking to the boy. Nathan stepped forward, lingering between sofa and armchair.

Simon thought of Ellie, and how quickly their marriage had come tumbling down. They’d planted green beans together in the spring, but she would be harvesting them alone. Maybe he could call and offer to help? Maybe she would say yes. He jumped from one scenario to another, and in all of them he saw a way back to happily married life. And why not? He hadn’t been an awful husband and they hadn’t had a terrible marriage. They’d drifted apart – that was all – and that was a situation that offered hope.

‘I should get going,’ Simon said. He stood up. He would call Ellie as soon as he got back downstairs. Or maybe he would just turn up at his old house, and surprise her.

‘You’ve gone too far the other way,’ Mrs Stephens said to the boy. ‘Softly softly Nathan—she’s supposed to come here, not him go there.’

Simon had made it to the living room door. He realised that the idea of turning up at his old house – Ellie’s house now – was ridiculous. They hadn’t ‘drifted apart’ – they’d grown bored of each other – and that had festered into resentment. But earlier in the year he’d tried and failed to have an affair. Ellie had found out. That’s when she pulled the plug, before the resentment could boil over into hate. It was a wonder that she was still speaking to him.

He turned back to Mrs Stephens. ‘What did you say?’ he said.

‘Oh, it’s just a game we play.’

‘Is it?’ he said. He stepped towards her and Nathan, and felt a rush of excitement at the thought of Ellie, and an urge to run to her, to go now and never come back here. He stepped back, sensing that he was somehow stepping out of range of the boy and whatever it was that he was able to do, and back to his real feeling about his wife and their marriage: disappointment.

Mrs Stephens frowned. ‘I told you not to be a kid—I told you you’d forget how to do this properly,’ but Nathan wasn’t listening. He wandered back to the rug and picked up his toy cars.

Mrs Stephens pushed herself up and off of the sofa. ‘I’ll do it myself,’ she said.

‘What’s going on?’ Simon said. ‘You’ll do what yourself?’

‘We’d like to meet your ex-wife,’ she said. ‘It would be helpful if she could visit you. Then you could introduce us.’

This wasn’t funny, and Simon didn’t laugh this time. ‘We’re still married,’ he said, but he wished he’d told Mrs Stephens to shut up. He turned on his heels and left the flat.

He walked down the steps to the basement flat, cool air drying the sweat patches on his cheeks. Wait until Ellie heard about these weirdos, he thought, but she wouldn’t hear about this at all. Their split had been amicable enough, but they weren’t at the point where he’d be telling her anecdotes about moving out. And these two weren’t weird; they were just different. Mrs Stephens clearly lacked social skills, but she had invited him in for tea, and it didn’t feel fair to mock them, even to himself. A guilty gloom descended, and with it the vague feeling that this wasn’t the first time he’d felt down recently.

He got as far as the door to his flat before he remembered the kettle. He paused, keys in hand. ‘Tomorrow,’ he said aloud. ‘I’ll call in tomorrow after work.’

*      *      *

‘It didn’t work, did it?’ Nathan said. ‘Is the man coming back?’

‘No, it didn’t, and yes he is,’ Mrs Stephens said. She patted the parcel on the table. ‘He’ll be back again tomorrow to try to collect this.’

‘And will we try again too?’ Nathan said. He was still holding one of his toy cars, although there was no longer any need to pretend to be a little boy.

She shook her head. ‘No,’ she said. ‘Tomorrow I’ll try on my own.’

‘And will we be together then, like him and his wife?’

Mrs Stephens nodded. ‘Yes, just like them, Nathan. Just the very same.’

 

Paul Nevin is a London-born and based author of short dark fiction. His work has appeared in Fictive Dream, Idle Ink, Vamp Cat Magazine and XRAY literary magazine. You can follow Paul on Twitter at @paulnevin.

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Rooted – Davena O’Neill

Nana planted an acorn on her wedding day. You grew to be my best friend.

As a baby, I was protected by your thick green foliage, lying on a blanket, wondering at my fingers and toes. As a small child I rocked on the tyre swing Dad had made, safe on your strong limb, holding me as securely as Dad held Momma when they danced.

Golden summer days, picnics and barbeques, skipping through rainbows made from sprinklers, you stood smiling, squirrels racing among your branches. I hugged your rough skin and learned to climb to your crown, queen of all I surveyed; sitting there I could see for miles. I hid in you whenever I didn’t get my own way, until Momma would coax me down with sweet words or the promise of cinnamon milk.

“Good night” I’d whisper, and kiss your bark, your reply a sigh as I ran to the house.

I learned to count with your acorns, learned my colours in your autumn glory. Made leaf mountains, then dived into them, swooping gold and brown and orange into the sky. Raked them all up, to do it again and again and again. I swear you laughed with me, shaking your canopy in the wind to give me more to play with.

Dad teased me when I worried for you when the snow came.

“You want to put your scarf on it?” he asked. I said that was a good idea, and Nana helped me knit one long enough to fit around you. Dad just shook his head when I proudly tied it and gave you a kiss, then made snow angels to celebrate.

“Sometimes I wonder about you”, he said, then he and Momma joined in. The shapes of us stayed, side by side before you, until the thaw.

Before the next summer I woke one night to commotion, anxious voices in the hall, Dad carrying Momma to the car, her saying over and over “It’s too soon, it’s too soon”. Nana tried to hush me to bed, but not before I saw the blood covered sheets. I ran to you and watched our car till the red tail-lights blinked out of sight. I wanted to stay up there all night, but Nana said I’d only be causing Momma more worry and she needed me to be good.

I wasn’t good enough, Momma never came home. We buried her on a grey wet day, like she had taken all of the colours with her. You stood bowed as I hugged you; branches dipped low to shield me as much as you could. Dad drank and cursed, walked away when I tried to hold his hand, shut himself in their room. Nana said to give him time.

I found him hanging from you a few days later. Granddad took a chainsaw to your branch, angry as if you were to blame. Nana held me back as I screamed, but I never forgave him, any of them. Still, I suppose it was right we were both scarred from their leaving. We buried him with Momma. Granddad too, not long after.

In time Nana and I got into our own rhythm. She kissed me off to school, had supper ready for my homecoming. We sat outside every evening, in all weather, she on the porch knitting, I on a blanket leaning against your trunk, counting the stars.

Nana cheered with me when I budded, wept with me when I bloomed, shared my secrets, hopes and dreams. She became parent and sibling to me; weathered the storm of my adolescence with a quiet grace I hoped to inherit. I sometimes watched her from my bedroom window place her hand on the stump of your severed limb, counting out the rings of life her son would not reach. Nana was the only one who could understand how much I loved you.

My first kiss happened beneath your boughs. I pressed my palms into your bark as he pressed against me. Our romance blossomed underneath your shade, it was only right you should stand for me at my wedding. We dressed you with fairy lights and danced in your glow, paper lanterns on wooden tables, a stereo playing our favourite songs. I waltzed with Nana, her head against my chest.

“I’m so happy for you girl”, she said to my heart.

“Thank you Nana”, I whispered into her hair, “for everything”. But I meant especially for you. She left me soon after and we wept together, your leaves falling as freely as my tears.

Joe never really understood how I was with you. He tolerated it, for a time. But each month that I leaned my tear-stained face against you he pulled further away. I hadn’t meant to shut him out, I just knew no other way. Your children have spread far and wide, grown and multiplied. Joe and I hadn’t roots strong enough to hold our seedless love together. Once again you took the poison of my grief and breathed into me the strength to go on.

So many seasons have passed, with you as my constant, but I am growing bitter like the taste of your fruit. Grey hairs frame my wrinkled face; my limbs resemble your fallen twigs, dry and shrivelled. You are so much stronger than me, aging gracefully, still in your prime, I cannot last.

The knife feels heavy as I stand before you. I push away thoughts of your shock as I carve into your bark, exposing the smooth white wood beneath. I am doing this for you, to leave you something of me. I slice my flesh, press my palm against you, blood mixing with sap.

The wind rustles through your leaves and I feel a rumble beneath my feet. You open up the heart of you, as I step closer, spiralling as we are entwined. I should have known, dear friend, you would not let me depart this world alone.

 

Davena O’ Neill writes about moments, the small everyday events that shape us. She is a published writer of poetry, flash fiction, and short stories, and lives in Kerry, Ireland.

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Walls – Carl “Papa” Palmer

have ears
listen
pay attention
available
don’t talk back
or offer opinion
never interrupt
let you have your say

being the wall
should be mandatory
taught in school
at home
on TV
a college class
before marriage
prerequisite for politicians
and not just in America

 

Carl “Papa” Palmer of Old Mill Road in Ridgeway, Virginia, lives in University Place, Washington. He is retired from the military and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) enjoying life as “Papa” to his grand descendants and being a Franciscan Hospice volunteer. Carl is a Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net and Micro Award nominee. MOTTO: Long Weekends Forever!

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Mealtimes with Milly – Leonie Rowland

‘Hello, and welcome back to Mealtimes With Milly. I make new videos every day, so you’ll never need to eat alone.’

I have been living, sleeping and eating alone for six months. There is nothing old about this city, and yet here I am, afraid of ghosts. I found Milly after eight lonely weeks, or one hundred and sixty-eight solitary mealtimes, in a quiet moment of serendipity, or perhaps divine intervention, that meant nothing at the time and now means everything.

‘I hope you’ve had a scrumptious day. Tonight, I’m eating cheese ramen from my favourite restaurant.’ Milly has a lot of favourite restaurants, but I phone this one all the same. My order follows hers exactly: one large bowl of cheese ramen with a soft-boiled egg and a side of beef rice. I have been a vegetarian all my life, but Milly wouldn’t like that.

‘Mmm, it smells good.’ She is wearing a yellow bow today, presumably to compliment the cheese. This tells me that she has planned her dinner with some foresight, which, besides her company, is more than I can say for myself. But my niggling sense of inadequacy is eased away by her first mouthfuls, the steaming soup, the moans she makes when it passes her lips. ‘Whoops,’ she says, laughing as a noodle trails against her chin like a slug. My mouth waters in anticipation.

Like everything that changes you, Milly made caves of my assumptions and called for re-evaluation. If someone else had been in my position when she pulled me from the pit, I might have laughed, or made a face like Milly did when she ate a plate full of lemons.

‘It’s so good to see you again. How’s your day been?’

There is a pause, in which I answer: ‘It’s been okay. I mean—it’s better now.’

‘Thank you so much for stopping by.’

‘You know I always do. How’s your day been, Milly?’

‘Let’s eat ramen!’ There’s always a slight disconnect in our conversations, but I have grown used to it and find that similar disconnects exist in my daily life. Since Milly, I have learnt to appreciate these gaps as profound moments of intimacy, the space where minds can meet, and I would venture my relationships have improved as a result.

It could be the excitement, or perhaps the knowledge that soon my body will be full, but I need the bathroom. Milly freezes with a spoon hovering seductively over parted lips, her little pink tongue just visible. I try not to go to the bathroom too many times because it spoils the flow of our conversation. Milly doesn’t like spoiled things. Once, she made a bowl of cereal, and the milk came out in large, quivering clumps. Milly screwed up her face, but she still looked perfect like that, like a little wincing doll. ‘It’s disgusting,’ she said—but looking back, if you mute the sound, void the expulsion, the words still look pretty falling from her lips.

When I lock the bathroom door, I often think of my mother. Sometimes I lock it quietly, so the metal barely makes a sound, and I can pretend it isn’t happening. Sometimes I lock it loud, with a flick of the wrist, quickly and with purpose. The door, I know, needs to be locked today, and I accept it. Sometimes I do it without thinking, and these times are the worst. A numb realisation washes over me and my clean hands when I try the handle and realise what I have done.

I don’t think she noticed me locking the door before I moved away. Or if she did, she thought nothing of it. I think that’s part of the problem. It put distance between us that she could not breach without breaking it down, and I am not sure which of us that isolated. The door was frosted glass, so I knew I could get out if it came to that, but I hoped it wouldn’t. There would have been nothing left to break.

When I was at university, a friend of mine liked playing the ‘imagine if’ game.

‘Imagine if your mother drove over and took you out for lunch,’ she would say.

‘Yes,’ I would reply. ‘Imagine that’.

Imagine if you came home for dinner one night, and there was nothing to eat but soap. Imagine that!

Imagine if all the toothbrushes came to life and became very malicious and started swearing. Would people still put them in their mouths? Imagine that!

Imagine if you locked the bathroom door and stayed inside for two whole days until your mother called the police. Imagine that!

My friend says I don’t understand the game very well.

When mother did come to visit, she banged hard on the bathroom door. If I think about it now, I can see the shape of her body in the glass. But she is already a spectre, here from another time, travelled all this way to haunt me.

Perhaps she did notice me locking the door, after all.

My doorbell rings, and I spring into action. The elevator pings seven times, counting the floors, and even though it is a logical impossibility, I hope it will be Milly waiting for me when the doors open. I have tried to smile like she does a few times, and I practice now in the mirror; but my face has none of her warmth, and I am suddenly aware of my skeleton. The delivery man is loitering outside, checking his watch, and I apologise as he hands me the bag.

‘It doesn’t matter,’ he says.

‘I hope you weren’t waiting for long. I’m having dinner with a friend, you see.’

‘The restaurant sends its compliments.’

‘It’s a pretty night, don’t you think?’ You can almost see the stars over the city’s spectral haze. I notice the moon is shaded yellow, so I add, as Milly might: ‘The moon looks like a giant bowl of ramen!’ The man looks at me suspiciously and, thanking me again, returns to his bike. I return to the lift and let the scent fill it up like steam in a sauna.

I had similar conversational success during a phone call that happened with my mother last Tuesday.

‘Hello, mother,’ I said to the air. Her voice arrived back, and I thought about how far we can reach without actually touching. She said: ‘Hello? Hello, darling,’ and then she asked how I am. Luckily, I was prepared. I have practiced my answer with a giant smile every night for two months. I know it is good because I’ve seen its reflection. ‘I’m very well, thank you. How are you?’ Milly always cares when she asks how I am, so I would never disappoint her with the truth.

My mother was well. She had decided to open a little shop in the village. That’s nice, I said. I think there’s something very sad about her hypothetically small shop, but I didn’t tell her that. The shop is pretty in my head, the kind of place I would like to go myself, but she looks wrong dressed in black among the pastel pinks and blues. I wonder what she’ll sell. I wonder if she’ll still buy me birthday presents or if she’ll just pluck one off the shelf. I wonder if I’ll like it anyway.

‘Maybe Milly and I will visit when it opens,’ I said, but I know that’s ridiculous. I have no plans to go home.

My mother said that would be nice, but I don’t really know Milly. It upsets me when she says this, because although four months isn’t long, I feel like I know her quite well.

‘Do you love her?’ she said.

‘She’s my best friend.’

‘Do you love me?’

‘You’re my mother.’

Imagine if I forgot to lock the door, and she tried the handle. Imagine that!

Imagine if she moved too fast and slipped on soap and hit her head. Imagine that!

Imagine if the insistent water forced her throat and found her lungs. Imagine that! Imagine that!

‘Maybe you could sell soap in the shop,’ I said. It’s a coincidence, really, because that night Milly told me she was opening a shop too.

‘It’s online, so you can visit it wherever you are.’ She has always been so thoughtful. I don’t think her shop will be anything like my mother’s. If it sells soap, maybe it will smell of her. I don’t think that’s out of the question. Mother said she was going to visit soon, so it would be nice to have a few Milly bars on hand.

When I return to my flat, ramen in hand, I am comforted by the glow from my laptop, which is gathering quietly in the darkness. The walk from the front door to the light switch, however short, always fills me with dread.

‘You’re home from a long day at work,’ says a familiar voice.

‘Hi Milly,’ I say, placing the hot plastic bags onto the table. Her voice is sweet, and I feel it stirring my cells. ‘It has been a long day.’

‘You are very special. Well done.’ I am suddenly filled with a deep uncertainty. I look closely at my laptop on the table.

‘You’re here,’ I say.

‘It’s so nice of you to drop by and see me.’

‘It’s my home. I have to drop by.’

‘Grab your food and get comfy.’

‘I’ll get you a bowl too,’ I say. But she is already eating. I walk to the kitchen, leaving her behind me. In my mind, I search for her shadow. ‘Would you like a drink?’

‘I love soup,’ she says. I empty a tin of tomato soup into a mug and place it in the microwave. I realise too late that it is decorated with her face. It turns smiling pirouettes in the blistering heat, and I am reminded of the day I moved away, when it was hot and disorientating, and I had no one. It was unclear whether she wanted the soup in place of a drink. I hope that by placing it in the mug she has the best of both worlds. I adapt quickly, you see.

I return and place the soup in front of her. She is paler than I remember, like her skin is made of porcelain. She has two red bows in her hair, and as she crouches over her dinner she looks feline, predatory almost. All she needs are whiskers, and she could be a beckoning cat.

She looks at me then. I feel it pierce my heart. She has always been so familiar. ‘Won’t you come home?’ she says. ‘Won’t you, please?’

‘I am home.’ I can smell something strong, like eggs, but I can’t see what she’s eating.

‘Please visit my shop.’

‘I will.’ I unwrap my food and break apart the wooden chopsticks. I can use them as weapons if it comes to that, I think. With hot mouths that taste the same, she is so close that we are almost touching.

When it is done, I place the containers back in the bag. It is like they were never there, and the thought of them arriving so recently and then being disposed of makes me want to cry. ‘I want to cry,’ I say.

‘I don’t like that,’ she replies.

I stand up and walk to the bathroom. Her face screws up as she watches me go, like it is full of lemons. I close the door, flick the lock. Only then do I realise my mouth is swollen with soup. I spit it into the sink, but it has burned through my cheeks, and they are red.

‘What are you doing?’ comes a voice from outside. I turn to the door just in time to see a silhouette advancing towards the frosted glass.

 

Leonie Rowland has just completed an MA in Gothic Literature at Manchester Metropolitan University. She was long-listed for the Bath Flash Fiction Award in October 2019 and the Reflex Fiction Spring Award in March 2020. Her academic writing has recently been published in the Dark Arts Journal.

The Cabinet Of Heed Issue 32 Contents Link

Image via AdobeStock

Ashes to Ashes – Mari Maxwell

She got the gold.

In the end it didn’t much matter.

She was all about the money, the having. She’d probably hock it anyhow.

Gold to her was orgasm. Dull warmth burnished. She had to have. Must have. Will. Have. It.

Kept the monster fed so she could weigh and stamp each nugget. The pure stuff. High end. First class. And if she draped herself in 24 or more karat how her adoring public would bow and scrape and she could just flutter her fingers, gold bracelets tinkling as each smashed into the other.

I hope her Midas touch turns it all to clay.

 

Mari Maxwell’s writing has featured in a Coercive Control exhibition with Wexford Women’s Refuge Nov. 2019; Healing Words Exhibition in London Oct. 2019, University College Dublin’s Poetry Wall in 2019 & 2018. Her writing features online and in print in Ireland, USA, India, Brazil and Australia.

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Image by Frank Winkler from Pixabay 

Re: More Tennis – Dan Brotzel

From: Jamie_gould@me.com

To: Tony_Sims@BluebirdNetworkSolutions.co.uk

Hi Tony

Thanks for your mail.

Yes it was great fun paying last weekend – a really good workout as always!

The only thing(s) that makes me hesitate about your offer of a game this weekend are:

(a) You never pay for the court or bring any balls.

(b) You overrule the score when you see fit, but if I ever question it you very rudely just tell me to get on with it and point to where I should be standing.

(c) You never wash your hands after going to the loo. I’ve seen you.

(d) You call shots of mine out that you couldn’t possible have even seen.

(e) You get so angry with yourself when you lose a point that I’m always worried that you’re going to do yourself an injury. You scream and call yourself a ‘fucking muppet’, throw your racket at the fence, and smack your face with your hands in a way that is frankly alarming to watch.

(f) Your jokes. What does ‘kedgeree is as kedgeree does’ even mean?

(g) Your style of play, which involves just lofting every return up in a high loop to the back of the court. You do this again and again, possibly because you haven’t got any actual strokes. As a result, playing you doesn’t really feel like actual tennis.

(h) Your preposterous boasts. Can your great-grandfather really have invented… the bag?

(i) Your crude insinuation that if I only listened to the unabridged audiobook, it ‘doesn’t count’.

(j) Your politics. I have no idea what they are, but I just know I’ll hate them.

(k) Your money. Your car. Your fancy trainers.

(l) Your personal trainer.

(m) The rumour that you strangled your father on his deathbed.

(n) Your devastating new girlfriend, who you bring along to applaud my double-faults.

(o) Your over-ornate facial hair.

(p) Your lack of a shadow.

So I’m a bit in two minds at the moment. The fact you always win has nothing to do with any of this of course.

All best

Jamie

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Image by Bessi from Pixabay 

Closure – Amanda Pendley

I look back
the way women do to make sure they’re
not being followed home at night
I look for the boot prints
the hot air
the everything that reminds me of you
there is only one redeeming factor left
about churches anymore
and it is that you don’t have to go inside
to study the stained-glass windows
the people inside probably feel like they are atoms
minuscule things
bees
looking up towards honeycombs
which makes me feel more god-like
not that it’s a competition
just that I am still alive enough to see
my breath in the air
instead of suffocating
hotboxed by hellfire
I always felt like fumes were coming
through the vents
little voices
in the way that they would keep the temperature
so cold you couldn’t get comfortable
enough to fall asleep
staying in the closet was a constant kick to the ribs
as soon as I would sink into my own warmth
the thermostat would drop below zero
southern Baptist churches rarely have stained glass windows
our pulpit had no windows at all
so no wonder it took me so long to
find the way out
I was blind in object permanence
a roly poly in an altoid tin
so when I see the sky
I look around
look behind me
afraid that the world will become a box
and I will lie bloody
impaled in its jaws
refusing to go back inside

 

Amanda Pendley is a twenty-year-old writer from Kansas City who is currently studying Creative Writing and Publishing at the University of Iowa. She has previously worked as an editor for Elementia Teen Literary Magazine and as the Nonfiction Editor of Ink Lit Mag. She is currently the Editor-in -Chief of Ink Lit Mag.

The Cabinet Of Heed Issue 32 Contents Link

Image by seagul from Pixabay 

A Spark, Once Ignited – Sara Dobbie

One hour after quitting time the warehouse manager re-enters the building. Punches in the six digit security code so the alarm won’t go off. Breathes in the absolute quiet of the foyer, so vastly different from the noisy hustle of working hours, and walks quickly past the offices through the double doors leading to her domain.

She has grown accustomed to the silence, the stillness of being the sole person present. The first night had been slightly unnerving, but now she moves through the darkness easily, unafraid, because the only ghost haunting this warehouse is herself. The great steel racks painted blue are lined with boxes, crates and fiber drums. The warehouse manager imagines the thousands of stacks of stationary, envelopes, and reams of lined paper that she is responsible for, resting there in a sort of purgatory. Waiting to be shipped to stores, where strangers will purchase them, people who will press ink into their pristine smoothness, fill them with words or images, fold them into shapes, stash them in drawers.

She doesn’t have an office, but against the east wall beside the shipping airlock sits her desk with its computer, telephone, and spinning chair. From 7:30 am to 4:00 pm, Monday to Friday, this is her post. In the soft, luminous glow from the digital display on the phone, she can see reports and receipts she’ll have to sign, but they can wait until daytime. She heads toward the back corner, an area where she knows the surveillance cameras do not record.

In the old days the company used to run three shifts, but the recession coupled with the advent of technology forced upper management to restructure. No more midnights, luckily for the warehouse manager. The first time she snuck in she worried about the external surveillance cameras that might catch her entering and exiting at odd hours, but after a few leading questions to the right people, found out that no one ever watches the tapes, because nothing ever happens. Who, after all, would want to break into a warehouse full of blank paper? This secured her confidence that no one could possibly find out, as long as she didn’t accidentally start a fire and burn the place down.

The position of warehouse manager entails shipping and receiving, locating and relocating items from their position in the racks. An intimate knowledge of every spot, every nook in the entire place, what it holds, and where it’s going. It requires organization, planning, a mind as spotless as the pieces of paper the company supplies to the world.

She carefully slides an empty wooden pallet from the stack at the end of the aisle, uses the hand jack to shift it expertly to her corner, then repeats the same process once more, so that the two pallets are side by side creating a rectangle shape. In the third aisle, in the last space on the bottom rack, is a pallet with two boxes identical to many others in the warehouse, labelled, in the warehouse manager’s own handwriting, “Rejected.” With her yellow plastic safety knife she slits through the packing tape on the first one, moves the cardboard flaps aside and retrieves a rolled up piece of foam. The second box contains a sleeping bag and pillow. She unrolls the foam, arranges it into a makeshift mattress, unzips the sleeping bag and spreads it out. Fluffs her pillow. Gets comfortable.

A sharp clanking rings out from above and she jerks upright, but realizes it’s only the sound of rain drops hitting the metal roof. Amy must be frantically closing all the windows at their apartment across town while Jeff watches her, amused, from his spot on the couch. The two of them will snuggle up under a blanket, watch Netflix and eat all the potato chips that the warehouse manager paid for. She could practically hear Jeff asking, “Where’s your roommate tonight?” He never did remember her name. Amy would shrug, “with her new boyfriend, I guess. She’s so secretive lately, I don’t know anything about him.” The warehouse manager has heard Amy say this before, to someone on the phone.

What Amy doesn’t know is that the warehouse manager has fabricated a pretend boyfriend. She didn’t want to be stuck starving in her bedroom while Amy and Jeff did it loudly on the living room couch, wondering after fifteen minutes of muted music and whispers, if it could be safe to emerge, to tiptoe down the tiny hall to the kitchen for a snack. Didn’t want to run into a shirtless Jeff smoking a cigarette and wiping the sex sweat from his brow. So whenever Jeff came over she told Amy she had a date. If Jeff slept over, she drove to her parents’ house under some pretence or another, and slept in her childhood bedroom.

This back-up plan worked perfectly until one Saturday the warehouse manager’s mother appeared at the apartment in the afternoon with a cake. Amy, in jeans and a pink bra, hair half curled and makeup half applied, mentioned the imaginary boyfriend. Spoke suggestive sentences like “spending so much time together” and “out all night.” The expression of sheer joy on the face of the warehouse manager’s mother, at the prospect of her shy, introverted daughter finding love, propelled a vortex of lies into motion that quickly spiraled out of control. Now the warehouse manager couldn’t stay at the apartment or her parents’ house, because both Amy and her mother assumed she was out romancing it up with “Damion”, and the story had stretched and twisted into an existence of its own that would not be denied.

The temperature in the warehouse is quite cool, automatically lowering after hours to economize on heating bills. The warehouse manager congratulates herself for the foresight she exhibited last night, hiding an extra comforter in an empty drum on the reject skid. Tucking it around herself tightly, she thinks about Damion. Where did she come up with the name? It must be from a paperback vampire novel she read as a teenager, a long buried adolescent fantasy. In fact, she recalls writing about this dark Damion in her diary, in slanted looping cursive, black ink flowering across the virginal pages.

The warehouse manager laughs and nibbles on a rice cake. It’s no surprise that she manages a warehouse full of stationary and note paper, that she’d been lured into the world of lined loose-leaf and envelopes. The blank pages are just as seductive, more so perhaps, than the mythical Damion. And the letters! She rolls over inside the lumpy sleeping bag, shuts her eyes tight, considers the potential for love letters, hate letters, revenge plots and even suicide notes. Show the warehouse manager a lover who embodies the mystique of a flawless sheet of paper and she will get down on her knees.

Above the din of the pelting rain, a loud crack that sounds a bit like thunder claps through the warehouse. Immediately, the shrill scream of the alarm rips through the aisles, darts among the rows of racking. Paralyzed for a few moments, the warehouse manager decides to assess the situation. Clutching her blankets tightly around herself, she runs to the doors that lead to the hall. Peers through the glass windows to see smoke filling the foyer. And firemen, entering one after the other, all dirty yellow suits and reflective stripes. Holy fuck, she thinks, panic stricken. Runs back through the darkness, bangs her knee several times on the corners of racking, consumed with a feverish desire to erase all traces of her absurd night time hideaway.

There is no time to dismantle her sleeping quarters because the firemen are already pushing through the doors, so the warehouse manager grabs her sleeping bag, her pillow, and hides herself in the supply closet. There’s barely enough room to stand, surrounded by shelves of cleaning products, mop heads, brooms and buckets.

She can hear their voices echoing as though amplified, spreading out in different directions. One, quite near, bellows to the others, “No need to search the place, all clear back here.” The warehouse manager relaxes slightly, but continues to hold her breath.

“Fucking kids,” someone answers from afar, “What would possess them to do that?”

“Oh, they get bored, they break windows and the like. On a dare, or whatever.”

“Yeah, but a firecracker? This place is a paper supplier, it could go up like a tinderbox under the right conditions.”

Inside the closet her heart cinches at the thought of the warehouse set ablaze, all that glorious potential gone, burned to ash. She knows that a spark, once ignited, can set off a chain reaction, can alter a course of events, can change everything. “Hey Joe, you might want to take a look at this. Looks like we got a squatter.”

The warehouse manager’s relief collapses and explodes as fear in her gut. She balls up the blankets, stuffs them inside a bucket, adjusts her sweatshirt and smooths her hair. Ear cocked against the closet door she listens as the firemen exclaim over the pallets, the way the foam is arranged just like a mattress. “Oh, lookee what we have here,” one mutters, and the warehouse manager curses internally, remembering the box of granola bars sitting next to her phone and charger on the makeshift nightstand she had rigged up with a cardboard shipper.

Through the thin crack at the base of the closet door the warehouse manager sees a beam of light sweeping the area. “What’s this door for?” she hears a deep voice ask. And then it opens. She finds herself face to face with a man who, remarkably, resembles Damion, or at least what she imagines Damion to look like. A brief vision of a surprised Amy encountering the shirtless fireman in their kitchen flickers in her mind. Blood rushes all through her, and with her cheeks on fire she looks the fireman right in the eyes.

“Who are you?” he asks.

After a split second of hesitation, she raises her eyebrow as if the answer is obvious. “I’m the warehouse manager, who are you?”

 

Sara Dobbie is a fiction writer living in Southern Ontario, Canada. Her work has appeared in Mooky Chick, Trampset, Spelk, The Cabinet of Heed, Crab Fat Magazine, Ellipsis Zine, (Mac)ro(Mic), Re-Side, The Spadina Literary Review, and is forthcoming in Fiction Kitchen Berlin, Change Seven Magazine, and Read More. Follow her on Twitter @sbdobbie.

The Cabinet Of Heed Issue 32 Contents Link

Image by TigerPak from Pixabay 

Dog Boss – Jim Meirose

The workmen arrived at the site where they’d been building a roadside sign between a field of tall weeds on one side and a highway on the other.

Okay, said the first workman. Today we got to frame the thing out. Simple, except for what I said yesterday. The boss says we got to do the corners with fancy dovetail joints. I swear, but it’s a total waste to use dovetail joint to frame a simple outdoor sign. Oh well. It’s a job.

Yah. That’s true, said the other, just as they were both distracted by the sight of a dog walker coming their way in the distance. He stood paused momentarily, letting his dog intently browse through a large clump of weeds to the side.

Look at that, said the first workman. That dog is lucky. That is the kind of owner a dog needs. He’s not rushing the dog. He’s not impatient. He knows that the dog relies on him to have a full life—he knows the dog needs very little to be completely happy. Something as simple as when walking the dog letting the dog take the lead like he is. He stops and lets the dog nose into the weeds. He’s got no clue what’s in the dog’s mind. Most people pull the dog away. That is cruel. What if every time you or I paused to enjoy something some strange giant we’re attached to pulled us away? Very cruel are most dog walkers. But not that one. Well, here—what’s on the agenda for today? Ah, yes—time to make the frame. And, the problem today is, dovetails. The boss wants the corner joints to be dovetailed. Ain’t that the shit? You know, when I was scanning down the plans when I went up to get them from him, I stopped there. I mean, the gold and the lead and the huge posts and the deep holes were bad enough, but—dovetailed joints? On a signframe in the outdoors built out with common two by fours?

Pushing out my chest, I said, hey, boss, I can live with the solid gold and the lead and the posts and everything, but—this is not a woodworking cabinetry style pretty-boy project. There is absolutely no need to do things as difficult as dovetails—

But his hand went up, chopping off my words—and the worst was, his hand turned palm out! Do you know what it means when that particular boss puts up his hand in that particularly abrupt way, and, to boot, hey hey, palm out?

No, said the watcher—the dog had accomplished whatever it needed to hidden nose-deep in the weeds, and turned began pulling the walker toward them.

It means don’t go too far with the questions—after a while, my man, I have learned that there is a point when questioning authority of any kind where the questions though if the words are analyzed are still questions but the questioner whose aura attitude tone and all says this is a statement—and this statement is that—you are a shithead you know that boss? You are stupid—I needed to know what that smell was in the weeds—I really really needed to know I did I did I did I did—but you pulled me away—I—I have forgot the question I was trying to say but you have yanked my leash have said come boy, come now—and yanked me down, to only being capable to say two words nearly the tiniest sentence you ever said which is, Yes, boss—followed by a rain of kisses all over the sweet bosses butt saying great job, what an idea, Lord I would never have thought to do it this way, a great boss is only a great boss when the reason they’re a great boss is absolutely apparent it’s not only that they are wearing a medal saying the greatest but that behind that medal is a worthy over worthy chest deserving of it being pinned on—yes, boss. Great, boss. Of course, we’ll do dovetails. Even though it is stupid. Even though, when I go to Merchy-Mark’s Discount Framing Lumber Warehouse, there will be laughter enough when I say what is the project that if a giggle were a candleflame and a laugh were a matchlight and that were multiplied by the number of people in the economy working lumber discount warehouse jobs for minimum wage or even and more likely completely off the books paid only in cash to get by who would laugh at the notion of cornering a rough outdoor signframe with cabinetry-grade dovetail joinery, the magnitude of the communal laugh, if converted into actual firs, would dwarf the now-legendary Chicago version, of which remnants of the destruction are still apparent in that fair city today—uh. Oh. Ah.

 

The Cabinet Of Heed Issue 32 Contents Link

Image by MICHOFF from Pixabay 

Better Than Yesterday – Gary Hughes

The first thing I saw when I looked out this morning was a young girl comforting a small dog whose head had become trapped between wrought iron railings.

Then I saw a policeman fall off his bike, get to his feet, reattach the chain, lift the bike above his head and stamping his feet like a cartoon character smash it to the ground.

To my surprise, I saw three seagulls attack an origami-thin heron that had perched on the roof of Saint John The Baptists.

After which I noticed a young priest I’d never seen before exit the sacristy, looking this way and that, a rolled rug tucked under one arm.

In between, the usual day in, day out.

People rushing towards the metro or for overcrowded buses, almost all of which have advertisements and political slogans on their sides, spreading lies like viruses, selling things that nobody needs.

Delivery vehicles blocking what is already a narrow street, some blocked drivers gesturing or blasting their horns, while others were prepared to wait, their patience a virtue of sorts, I think.

Old women with veiled heads and old men with poorly concealed newspapers entering the church through the front door.

Café owners preparing their terraces. Straightening tables. Arranging chairs.

Unlike my roommates, for want of a better term, I try to look out on a regular basis. Sharpen my saw as often as I can.

Occasionally, I see a woman that looks like my mother.

Sometimes, I see a man that looks like my father.

Once, I saw a boy that looked like my brother but my brother was vaporised, killed fighting a war that wasn’t his, not that wars belong to anybody other than those who start them.

Truth be told and I prefer to be truthful, although that’s how I usually end up in hot water, I spend a great deal of time looking out. Telling myself stories about what I see. Making connections and asking questions. Like, has that priest just stolen that rug and why? Was he even a priest? Was it valuable? Or was there something concealed inside? Which newspapers are those men carrying? What are the headlines and who planted them? And why can’t those birds get along together? There must be enough sky for them all.

However, I much prefer looking out in the warmer months. The way it is now, with the snow still heavy on the mountains beyond, these bars get so cold my fingers cry mercy and I do need to hold on to these bars, so that I can pull myself up to see out the window. The draft makes my eyes water too.

This morning, I saw a girl comforting a dog whose head had got stuck between some railings.

I saw two men running towards them, one carrying what looked like an enormous scythe.

Several people had congregated around the girl and the dog. The girl stroked the dog with her fingers.

Then a removal van blocked my view and I couldn’t see what happened until I saw the girl carrying the dog towards a door leading to the apartments above the deli. The dog was wagging its tail and the girl rubbed its neck.

Twenty minutes later the young priest returned with a different rug.

I look forward to this afternoon.

 

Gary Martin Hughes was recently published in Necessary Fiction, Visual Verse and The Honest Ulsterman, with others forthcoming. He tweets @GaryMartinHugh1.

The Cabinet Of Heed Issue 32 Contents Link

Image by LORRAINE GRIDLEY from Pixabay 

the stranger – Christine Brooks

she came up to me, asking for
a chance
to chat in private
said I looked like the kind of person who
could help

she said she was looking for her daughter,
given up on
July 4, 1967
or perhaps, even
taken by nuns

not one day had passed without thinking of
her baby,
barely, even a
moment

she had no way of knowing that
I was adopted, & wondered
often about the woman who
gave birth to me
or that my research concluded at her grave,
years after her
heart stopped in the middle of a June night

a regular Wednesday took my birth mother out
but, somehow
a Friday night, which wasn’t very regular at all,
brought her back

or at least,

that’s how I remember it

 

Christine Brooks is a graduate of Western New England University with her B.A. in Literature and her M.F.A. from Bay Path University in Creative Nonfiction. Her poem, the price, is in the October issue of The Cabinet of Heed and her poems, life and I Don’t Believe, are in the fall issue of Door Is a Jar. Two poems, friends and demons are in the January 2020 issue of Cathexis Northwest Press and her poem, communion, is in the January 2020 issue of Pub House Books. Her book of poems, The Cigar Box Poems, was released in February 2020.

The Cabinet Of Heed Issue 32 Contents Link

Image by Comfreak from Pixabay 

The Cairn – Claire Kotecki

When the stones appeared on the beach, summer hadn’t soured yet. It would be weeks before you retrieved the body.

I don’t remember now who first saw them, standing proud against the horizon, a cairn of pink flecked granite and feldspar that seemed both new and old in the same breath. In small villages, news spreads from mouth to mouth until it permeates everyone. Ours was no different. I remember when the stones first saw me though. I was alone in the half-light of the early summer morning, sand frosting my bare feet, and there they stood, as tall as you. Watching me. Although I didn’t know that then.

I type this now, watching our daughters dip and dive in the water, grebe-like and fluid. I am a writer. We seize moments and craft words, but I am not sure there will ever be a perfect moment to record what happened last summer. I know that it is beyond me to resist the pull to try. No matter how carefully I phrase this, how many times I edit the words, they will think that what I am about to recount is a fantasy, a notion held in the head of a storyteller. Maybe it will help them rest easier at night if they believe that.

I still wake in the dead hours before morning claims me. Mid-breath. Sweating into my pillow. It’s the same dream. Always water. Watching the young children now, lithe and confident, as they slide in and out of the glistening surface like seal cubs, always returning to bask on the sands, I almost believe I can swim again. Almost. Until the claws of the dead hours unsheathe and I hear them gently scratching against the glass of the summer porch. I turn my head, but they are too fast for me. I know they are there though, beneath the surface.

*      *      *

The stones were a curiosity. Our little coastal village is a gentle place. Colourful cottages line the sea front, impish, each with their own character. The single road that crests the surrounding hills and winds gently down to the water is our only link with the world outside. I had known as soon as I drove down it the first time watched by curious village eyes that this was a writer’s village. I had known it was home. We couldn’t wait to see the beach so we abandoned the car and ran down to the shore, the children squealing with youthful joy. You held my hand and we slipped off our shoes and walked barefoot to the waters’ edge, sand grains coating our toes.

Standing on the same sand, staring at the stones the day they arrived, I felt something shift beneath me. Everything was less solid. I remember turning away from the unusual pink granite boulders, cold air nipping at my shoulders, and taking the cliff path home, eager to tell you what I’d seen. We still shared things then.

That night, the first child went missing.

*      *      *

Annie was the grocer’s daughter. We still called him ‘the grocer’ even though his little shop on the seafront had long since filled up with the kind of things that appealed to passing tourist trade rather than village residents. I remember her wild red hair as it flew out unchallenged when she sped through the narrow streets, heading for the next adventure, accreting children to her like a wayward galaxy. The stones arrived and she was simply gone, her bed empty in the morning when her father went to wake her.

The world came into our village that day. We didn’t invite them but they came anyway. The grocer’s shop was shuttered and empty. We didn’t realise then that the shutters had started to come down in all of us. I think I was the only one who noticed that there was one more stone on the cairn that morning. I tried to warn you but you weren’t ready to see. You hadn’t heard the noises in the night. Yet. Each night, as you tucked the children in, you always gave the window locks a final check.

We still thought a lock could keep you safe then.

Walking the beach path became a ritual for me that summer. I still remember the way you looked at me each day as I pulled on my boots. Your eyes were sad. Once you asked me. Only once.

“Why do you go there each day?”

“Someone needs to. Someone who understands,” I replied. A piece of me broke away when I saw your expression. You just shook your head and turned away.

That day, there was another stone on the pile. By evening, the village was alive with talk of the accident. A child had been taken by the tide. This time a boy. His mother served tea in the café on the wharf, a gentle woman whose face lit up when she talked about her son. His body was washed ashore by the evening tide. Standing on the shoreline amongst the silent villagers, I gripped your hand. You squeezed back tightly, as if you were trying to anchor us. We listened to the low mutter amongst the boatmen gathered at the waters’ edge. Old Jacob turned to us.

“Luck’s gone. Ain’t nothing but to try and find it again. ‘e won’t be the last. It’s you incomers. Gone and made ‘em angry.”

I couldn’t find words to answer and he didn’t ask for them. I watched your face, hoping for a sign that you disagreed with him. You looked back at me and I knew that you had a kernel of fear in your centre.

That night, you insisted we leave the door to the children’s room open as they slept. In the morning, your side of the bed was already empty when I woke. I found you standing by the edge of their tiny sleeping bodies, staring at the window frame. I saw them too. Deep scratches etched into the woodwork. On the inside. That morning, you joined me on my walk to the beach and we both kept silent vigil by the cairn. It would be our last walk together, although we didn’t know that then.

*      *      *

The stones gave Annie back on the day of the boy’s funeral. Villagers spilled out of the church door and filled the graveyard on the hill. His mother stood hunched by the open grave. I didn’t see her cry. It was as if she rejected the salty water, refusing to acknowledge it. It had taken too much from her. It was a seafarer’s cemetery, the grey slate slabs a brutal reminder of the ocean’s power. A vicious wind blew in from the harbour, cutting into our backs. I knew something was watching us on the exposed slope. Waiting. I tried to keep my eyes on the woman by the grave, but the need to look back was too strong for me. I turned towards the shore, knowing what I would see.

The stones stood proud against the grey marl of the water. Rising and falling on the waves at the shore’s edge was a tiny body, her titian hair flowing in with the water.

You reached the shoreline ahead of the crowd, wading into the freezing waves without thinking. When you dived, I thought I had lost you, but you surfaced eventually and made your way out of the surf clutching the small body in your arms. When you looked at me, I knew that you were finally ready to understand. At home that night, you locked the doors and tucked the covers around our children, taking up a place in the chair in the corner of the room.

We never shared a bed again.

*      *      *

My daily pilgrimage to the stones became a part of our lives that summer. You were always waiting by the door when I returned, an unspoken question between us. The cairn of stones remained unchanged. Waiting. The children couldn’t understand why I stopped them from swimming with their friends in the waters of the bay. They could only hear the call of the crystal blue waters, shimmering in the summer light each day, just out of their reach. We knew that it was only a matter of time. We waited. Watched. Counted. They didn’t know that each night you kept a vigil alongside them. They couldn’t hear the scraping claws circling us.

*      *      *

The day the stones changed, it was a bright morning, sunlight flecked the water and I was almost happy. When I crested the peak of the path, I knew. I chose to count anyway. There were two stones more that morning. I ran home, the metallic taste of blood filling my mouth as my breath rasped through me. You were already waiting by the door. You knew.

“Stay with the children,” you said.

“I love you,” I replied. For a moment, we held each other with our eyes but we both knew that contact would make this harder.

“I know,” you said. And then you were gone. Already a memory. I locked the door and sat with the children until they woke. We had always known that it would be my place to stay.

*      *      *

I still ask myself which one of us made the greater sacrifice, when I am alone in the dark of our house. The stones demanded someone, and you gave yourself. I can never explain that to our children. I read them stories before bed, tell them you had to go away for a while and that you loved them. One day, I’ll tell them about the stones but they’re not ready to understand yet. One day, they will read this and know how much you loved them.

Until then, I will stay here and hold back the dark. I couldn’t save you from the stones but I can be the sea wall that keeps the waters at bay.

*      *      *

You disappeared the day the stones did. Really though, you left me the day you pulled the limp body of the child from the surf. I woke to the barren dawn light of another day knowing that you were gone. I still walked the cliff path that day, cold rain hitting my face in the cross-wind. I needed to see the beach. Once, I had found the wind refreshing. Then, it simply beat me with each icy drop.

The stones were gone.

I had known they would be. The relentless cycle of tides had smoothed away any sign of their existence. The village would say you had left me but we both knew the truth. The stones had taken you, just as we had known they would.

It was the price we paid.

I pretended that I knew you were going. Told those that asked that life in a small coastal village was too isolating for you. You were an urban creature. No matter how hard I tried to rewild you, there was asphalt and concrete at your core. These are the lies we craft for ourselves to make sense of the darkness. The truth is always there though. Scratching at the edges as the children sleep in the room across the hall.

I should leave here, I know. Build a new life away from the ocean. I don’t believe that I will ever shed the scent of the salt air though. It’s too corrosive. Instead, I wait. Each day, keeping watch over the bay. I fear the return of the stones. It keeps me awake through the dark hours. It is only with the dawning light that I can see there is also hope.

Hope is my tether.

 

Claire Kotecki is a writer, scientist and educator. She holds an MA in Creative Writing and a Biology PhD, and this is interwoven into her creative work. Her writing has been published in a number of literary magazines, on and offline. She is currently working on her first novel, ”Tales of the Wind Born’, and is a Lecturer in Biology and Media Fellow at the Open University.

The Cabinet Of Heed Issue 32 Contents Link

Image by Deborah Bates from Pixabay 

How Paul Got The Job – B F Jones

The HR department had been in turmoil for the past 6 weeks, struggling to fill in the much-needed role of Sub-lead Digital Marketing Co-editor, which required an in-depth knowledge of editorial techniques, digital marketing and IT support, along with a passion for fruit dehydration and its associated policies, ideally a masters degree and preferably some relevant experience.

Contenders had been carefully selected. Of the 20 that went through the first round of video conference interviews, 9 were deemed too inexperienced, 4 had come dangerously close to falling asleep listening to the extensive list of duties and decided not to proceed with the process, and 2 had overlooked the fact that it was a video call and had not been prepared. The woman with no trousers and the man with a collection of swastikas in the background had provided delightful water cooler material for the rest of the week.

The last 5 contenders were invited for a second interview. Two of them had, in their own words, “not felt a connection with the Lead Principal Marketing Co-director”, one of them later referring to her as a bitter old bat, and the other going home to reconsider his career and life choices. The third one got lost on the District Line, leaving the final 2 in a very good place.

Young Danny was sitting at reception, wiping his sweaty hands on the thigh of his beige linen suit, rubbing his non-existent moustache with the back of his fist. The receptionist had kindly offered him a drink, which he had declined in an unexpected falsetto voice that had made him sweat more.

He’d then sat for the following 10 minutes, flipping through the job description over and over again, then through his CV, noticing to his horror that he had written ‘steak holders’ instead of ‘stakeholders’, prompting his feet to start sweating.

Miranda, the self-proclaimed Lead Principal Marketing Co-director had paired up with Sarah, the newest member of HR with a strategy to play good cop/bad cop and base the final decision on a 30-step marking process.

Sarah had welcomed Danny in, ignoring the squelching of his shoes, refraining from wiping her hand on her suit skirt until it was safely out of sight under the table they all sat at. Miranda had immediately fired off questions, starring at Danny while he stuttered answers that trailed off, suffocated by a thick coat of discomfort.

Later Danny, pint in hand, arse cheeks still tender from extensive clenching, vented his spleen to his friends. How am I supposed to know how to weigh an elephant without fucking scales? Yet Danny still hoped. The pretty HR woman, Sarah, had asked regular questions and he had answered them well.

Sarah had felt Danny would have been a good contender for the job if not for his sweat glands and rabbit-in-the-headlights demeanour. He was well qualified, ethical, had a definite passion for fruit dehydration and was likely to be a great team player. She had therefore called him in person to share the bad news that he didn’t get the job and had voiced encouraging thoughts to him, resulting in an immediate and awkward Facebook friend request.

Paul arrived exactly 2 minutes early at the reception, knowing from years of experience that waiting too long will tarnish one’s chance for a first impression as well as moisten one’s palms. He had decisively agreed on a cup of coffee, requesting skimmed milk and 1.5 sugars, as a way to show that he was confident, not afraid of bold choices and not afraid to be bossy. He’d enjoyed seeing Sarah walk off to the kitchen. Nice pins. And come back holding the hot beverage. Nice tits. Thank you Sarah.

Miranda had fired her trickiest questions and he had replied unflinchingly, maintaining her gaze whilst avoiding being drawn to the hairy mole on the side of her nose. Sarah had to hand it to him, this was an impressive trick she was yet to master. Paul had said that he had no problem looking after a team, asserting that discipline wasn’t an issue for him to administrate. He mentioned that information was power, that he didn’t believe in getting feedback as a mean of progression, that he rated himself a strong 10/10.

Sarah wanted to further explore some of the answers she considered as “alarm bells” when Marcel came trotting into the open-plan office. She had not been informed of Marcel’s occasional presence on the office grounds and she had felt the hair on the back of her neck slowly rise while Paul’s voice had become distorted by the absolute revulsion that had overcome her. Unable to take her eyes of the mouse, and unable to make sense of Paul’s ramblings about discipline and empire building anymore, she had nodded and nodded, feeling her feet rising and her legs coiling around her chair legs. She’d shortened her share of the interview to half the questions when Marcel had started looking though the glass window; and definitely called it a day when he started walking alongside the meeting room door, the thick glass pane rendering his tail gigantic.

The next day, the new HR lady, Julie, phoned Paul to congratulate him on his new role as Sub-lead Digital Marketing Co-editor.

 

The Cabinet Of Heed Issue 32 Contents Link

Image by Jo_Johnston from Pixabay 

And Sings The Tune Without The Words – Evan James Sheldon

I went out back to smoke and think my deepest thoughts when I saw the man tied to the tree. He had been there for some time. At least I guessed so by the state of decomposition. Even still, his hair looked great, all styled and intentional. His eyes were open and milky, seeing right through me. I wondered what he had been looking at the moment he passed. From his view, you could make out my kitchen and I thought maybe he had been watching me wash dishes. How mundane an ending, how minimal.

It made me wish I lived a wild extravagant life; not for myself but for him.

I had read somewhere that the soul can linger in the body, though I don’t know that mine would, if given a choice when the moment arrives. But, if he was still around, I thought I might offer him something better than sudsy water in his parting from earth.

I put my cigarette in his mouth and tried to think of what I would want to see before I shifted dimensions or whatever. I ran back in a grabbed some poetry and then read him my favorite lines. I tried to sing a hymn, but I only remembered the tenor line and it sounded odd by itself without the other harmonies. I danced wildly, with abandon. I performed a small one-act play I made up on the spot. I painted something I had never seen. I moved from one thing to the next without pause. I laughed. I wept. I was everything.

Exhausted, I leaned on the tree next to the man. The light in my kitchen leaked out into the lawn but that wasn’t what drew my eye.

It was the sky. It was everything besides my kitchen window. It was everywhere I wasn’t, and it all took on an enraptured, amber hue. I couldn’t look away.

And I wished someone would come along and support me, tie me up when I began to falter, so I could continue to view it, long after I had lost the strength.

No one came.

Eventually, the sun set and it got cold. The light from kitchen beamed like a beacon, calling to me. It wasn’t anything compared to the sky. Not what it had been anyway. But it was a warmth at hand, one I was familiar with.

I went inside and didn’t know what to do. I turned the television on but it was too garish. I had once read that canned laughter had all been recorded in the fifties, so every time a laugh track ran, it was really dead people chuckling so you would understand and laugh too. I moved from the couch to the bed back to the couch, and then to the kitchen. I couldn’t have told you what I was looking for. I didn’t do the dishes, but I did lean beyond them to look for the man who couldn’t stop gazing at the sky. It was too dark to see him. To see if he was still there. If he was still there, I would be a silhouette, a suggestion of personhood backlit in the near neon-blue of television glow.

Then I had an impossible thought and wondered if the man had shaken free of his tether, started walking, and simply kept on up and up and up. And if you were always walking up, with nothing to keep you on the ground, why couldn’t you step right into the sky? I craned my neck looking for the ember of my cigarette in the sky, even though he finished it a long time ago.

Behind me, dead people laughed and laughed until I couldn’t stand it any longer and I left the kitchen to see what was so funny.

 

Evan James Sheldon’s work has appeared recently in the Cincinnati Review, Ghost Parachute, and Litro. He is a Senior Editor for F(r)iction and the Editorial Director for Brink Literacy Project.

The Cabinet Of Heed Issue 32 Contents Link

Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay 

Teatime – Noa Covo

The tin of biscuits in my shopping cart reminded me of Sunday tea with my mother, the only day of the week she and the crows had a truce. As a child, my mother and I would spread out a checkered blanket in the soft grass, pull out a thermos, dainty teacups, and a tin of store bought biscuits. The crows would gather, bright eyes gleaming. My mother would open the tin and toss the biscuits into the grass, letting the crows have their pick. There were never any left for us. After they had devoured the biscuits, the crows would gather on the grass at the very edge of the picnic blanket with their greedy beaks slightly open, as if they wanted something more. They didn’t attack. Sundays were truce days. My mother and I never drank the tea we brought with us. It always cooled in our dainty teacups, and we’d pour it away at the end of the picnic.

I had half-forgotten the tea parties as I waited in line at the shop with a cartful of food until I pulled a tin of biscuits from underneath a bag of rice and a can of tomato sauce. I hadn’t remembered putting it there, but I paid for it nonetheless. I found myself in the parking lot, leaning on the hood of my car, tin in hand.

I opened the tin. A crow landed with a flutter at my feet, and a moment later came the rest of them, eyes glittering, beaks wide open, waiting. I took a biscuit from the tin and wondered why my mother had never kept any for the two of us. The war with the crows had lasted well past my seventh birthday, perhaps even my eighth. They had stolen our silverware and rummaged through our drawers. I remembered their squawked demands.

“Why did you stop?” I asked the crow at my feet. I wondered if the biscuits had finally appeased them.

The crow stared unblinkingly as I brought a biscuit to my mouth. Its cruel eyes glittered. With a shiver, I remembered the last of our shared picnics. The crows had stood at the edge of the picnic blanket, waiting, as they always did, but this time, my mother took one long look at me, a look at the crows, and nodded. The crows stormed the blanket. Memories came back, as I clutched the biscuit in my hand, memories of being ripped apart in the soft afternoon sun in the park on a checkered blanket, torn apart as my mother watched.

I blinked back tears, examining my hands as if looking for scars, proof that the crows had tried to pick me apart. I remembered myself sobbing, blood running from my wounds, and my mother handing me my teacup and telling me to drink up. I remembered the metallic taste of the tea, tea that had knitted my wounds together as the crows flew off and my mother caressed my bloodstained hair. My mother’s war with the crows had ended that day.

The crows in the parking lot watched me. I had forgotten what it was like being at war with them, the constant fight and flurry of feathers. I would not enter another war with them. I knew it would end, once again, in my blood.

I dropped the tin, letting the biscuits spill over the pavement. The crows looked at me unimpressed. They had tasted my flesh once, my eyes, my cheeks. I would not let them have that, not again, and they would never again settle for less. I left the biscuits on the ground and got into the car. The war between us had been my mother’s. I did not want it to start anew. On my way out of the parking lot, I watched the crows. They spread their wings and flew away, leaving the biscuits untouched on the pavement and becoming a black cloud of distant memory.

 

Noa Covo is a teenage writer. Her work has appeared in Newfound and Reckoning, and her microchapbook will be published by Nightingale and Sparrow this summer.

The Cabinet Of Heed Issue 32 Contents Link

Image by seawie from Pixabay 

 

 

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